In 1971 a sound came roaring out of rural Arkansas, of all places, that featured soaring guitars, flashy drum and bass work and, above all, howling, roaring, guttural vocals. The band was Black Oak Arkansas, named for the hometown of its members, and its lineup was a collection of good-old-boys who could absolutely get down and dirty onstage, in the studio and … everywhere else.
Black Oak Arkansas was led by one of the premier front-men of his day, James “Jim Dandy” Mangrum. With long blond hair flowing nearly to his waist and wearing stretch pants made seemingly of latex, Jim Dandy preened and strutted around the stage like a peacock on acid, using (and often abusing) an old-fashioned washboard to keep rhythm with. His voice was inimitable, as if his vocal chords were made of high-grade sandpaper. Jim Dandy looked possessed, grinning widely and with eyes ablaze. Dude had an athletic build, and those pants … well, they held no secrets. Tight? If Jim Dandy had found a dime onstage he would have had to hand it to one of his bandmates to hold for him. With Jim Dandy out front Black Oak Arkansas was one of the most entertaining live acts of its time.
Their story began in a tiny hamlet in the flatlands of Northeast Arkansas. The community of Black Oak is small and poor. A look at Google Maps/Street View reveals only a handful of commercial buildings, empty now and boarded up. Modest frame homes on the back streets are tidy, the abode of those working on surrounding farms and nearby industry. It was from this speck on the map that some high school buddies got together to form a rock group, The Knowbody Else. The group included most of the lineup that would later become famous as Black Oak Arkansas: guitarists Ricky “Ricochet” Reynolds, Stanley “Goober Grin” Knight and Harvey “Burley” Jett and bassist Pat “Dirty” Daugherty. The key piece fell into place when original vocalist Ronnie “Chicky Hawk” Smith decided he preferred the technical work of stage management and recommended his pal James Mangrum as the group’s front man.
The band gained regional notoriety of the wrong kind when someone noticed the band’s PA system looked a lot like the one missing from Monette High School. For that the members were charged with grand larceny and received a sentence, soon suspended, of 26 years in prison! Having worn out their welcome locally, The Knowbody Else moved to a compound in North Central Arkansas, became self-sustaining (no doubt growing more than food in the rich soil) and spent lots of time practicing.
After a short period on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast the band moved to the musical hotbed of Memphis in 1969 and signed a record deal with a small label. A larger record deal came about after gigging on the West Coast at which time the band changed its name to Black Oak Arkansas. Black Oak released its self-titled first album in 1971, and it was a killer. The band’s sound and spirit was perfectly captured in anthems such as Lord Have Mercy on my Soul (written by Jim Dandy after a particularly vivid acid trip), Hot and Nasty and When Electricity Came to Arkansas (with its groove based on the Woodstock rain chant), songs that would form the backbone of the band’s set list for the rest of the its career.
Listeners had never heard anything closely resembling Jim Dandy’s vocals. Raspy, searing and scary, Jim Dandy’s voice blistered its way through the instrumental track and established the wild-eyed singer as a force to be reckoned with. Of course few of the band’s songs – especially Hot and Nasty – were worthy of airplay on conventional AM stations, but the band got plenty of run on late night “underground” stations, particularly the legendary KAAY in Little Rock which had a large listenership from South Louisiana up into Illinois.
The album launched Black Oak as a live act and the band toured across America, sometimes as a support act and sometimes as the headliner. In an era of limited media nobody seeing Black Oak for the first time could have guessed what they were in for. The band was very solid, musically, even exceptional – especially after adding now-legendary heavy metal drummer Tommy Aldridge in 1972. Jim Dandy was a tour de force onstage, a massive presence commanding everyone’s attention. His booming voice carried the arenas, but it was nothing compared to his onstage personality. Leering demonically with eyes aglow, Jim Dandy engaged the audience with a knowing nod and a wink and one felt somehow that Jim Dandy was kind of a buddy … a crazy, drug-possessed buddy and one to be kept at arm’s length but a buddy nonetheless.
Jim Dandy’s main instrument was an old fashioned washboard played in the traditional way with thimbles on the fingers. One can argue without fear of contradiction that James Mangrum was the finest washboard player in the history of rock and roll music. Name me anyone else who comes remotely close! He also subjected the washboard to unmentionable indignities, particularly on the song Hot Rod, and even smashed the poor thing to bits at the end of the show.
Though their sound was tight, the rest of the band presented an appearance that left no doubt as to their roots. Pat Daugherty often wore a coonskin cap onstage while Stanley Knight sported bib overalls. Had their hair been cut the band could easily have passed as Confederate soldiers after hard campaigning.
Though their studio albums had been, to that point, sharp and well produced, Black Oak’s strength was its live performances. Thus, in 1973, Black Oak released Raunch & Roll Live, which perfectly captured the band’s onstage energy and sound. The album cover featured a much-too-close-up photo of a semi-toothless Jim Dandy, cross-eyed and leering maniacally into the camera, his hair matted and sweaty. Another 1973 release, High on the Hog, reached #52 on the Billboard album charts and was joined by Black Oak’s only big hit single, Jim Dandy to the Rescue, a remake of a 1950s classic. Vocalist Ruby Starr, who often toured with Black Oak, lent her talents to the song, egging Jim Dandy on with her “Go, Jim Dandy!” Jim Dandy to the Rescue peaked at #25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and has been a staple on Clear Channel classic rock playlists for the past three decades. If casual music fans know anything at all about Black Oak Arkansas, it is that song.
The success of 1973’s recordings was enough to push Black Oak another notch higher as an in-demand touring band. By 1974 the band was headlining stadium concerts across America and even appeared on the legendary California Jam rock festival that drew more than 250,000 people and featured Deep Purple, The Eagles, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Earth Wind and Fire as well as Black Oak Arkansas. Parts of the festival even found their way to network television, placing Black Oak in front of millions of viewers who had seen little, if anything, of the band onstage in its native environment.
After the 1974 album Street Party (which featured a lovely version of Dixie) band members began to slowly peel away. Harvey “Burley” Jett became a born-again Christian and left the band to travel and preach. He was replaced by Jimmy “Soybean” Henderson. In 1976 Tommy Aldridge, fed up with the band’s heavy drug-use, decided he wanted to leave the group but found it wasn’t easy – or safe! Contractually, Aldridge had played with Black Oak long enough to become an “equal partner” in the band’s finances, which were substantial, complex and sophisticated. When he let the band’s manager know he wanted out Aldridge says he was threatened and in order to escape had to literally steal away from the band’s Arkansas compound in the middle of the night. He ended up a sort of refugee in Chicago, hiding his identity until a thug pinned Aldridge against a wall and threatened him with bodily harm. Aldridge was able to eventually legally separate his ties from Black Oak and lived to tell about his adventure.
Subsequent mid-‘70s albums failed to perform. Sales plummeted and Black Oak went into a tailspin. Jim Dandy eventually dropped Arkansas from the band’s name, replaced all original members with new musicians and changed his own vocal style to try to gain a more mainstream audience. It didn’t work. Jim Dandy himself eventually left the band in the early 1980s for health reasons, returning in 1984. By that time original guitarist Ricky Lee Reynolds had rejoined the lineup.
Black Oak Arkansas has intermittently sputtered along ever since with periods of inactivity and changing personnel. A revival of sorts came about in 2013 when Pat Daugherty and Jimmy Henderson returned to join Ricky Reynolds, Jim Dandy and the current Black Oak lineup to record a new album featuring unreleased songs from Black Oak’s glory days and a selection of new material. The resulting album, Back Thar N’ Over Yonder, is a solid effort and has received support from the band’s loyal core of fans. The lineup has toured in support of the album and has dug its way up out of smaller club venues to surface at small festivals.
Like all bands Black Oak has left some parts along the way of its path. Ruby Starr, beloved by Jim Dandy and the rest of the band, passed away from cancer in 1995. Stanley “Goober Grin” Knight, a founding member of the band, succumbed to cancer in 2013.
Harvey Jett continues his work in Christian ministry including working in prison outreach as well as contemporary Christian music. Tommy Aldridge, once free of the band’s clutches, went on to a career of note, playing drums for the Pat Travers Band, Ozzy Osbourne, Thin Lizzy and, most recently, Whitesnake. With backing by longtime sponsor Yamaha drums, Aldridge gives drum clinics and is much in demand as a sessions drummer. Pat Daughtrey got busted, badly, and spent time in prison before reuniting with his former bandmates for the 2013 album and tour. Ricky Reynolds continues as Black Oak Arkansas’ guitarist and aside from Jim Dandy is the band’s longest-tenured member.
As for Jim Dandy Mangrum … the spandex tights are gone. In their place is a black leather vest which to a degree hides a considerable paunch. During the heyday of Black Oak Arkansas I don’t know that anyone could have envisioned what Jim Dandy might look like in his 60s, but all things considered he’s standing on his own, still has most of his voice and seems to enjoy himself on stage. With his bleached-blonde hair, Jim Dandy looks somehow like he should be involved with professional wrestling, perhaps as a manager.
Check out BOA’s current web site for current news and tour dates. And for goodness sakes, don’t miss the eight webisodes that share a very personal and up-close look at the band’s roots, history and new album with current interviews and vintage footage.