"One of destiny's many mysteries," growls a rejuvenated Jim Dandy, "is we are just now in our prime!" Dandy, with his distinctive southern drawl and contagious laughter, speaks passionately about the renewed Black Oak Arkansas. "I've outlived most of my adversaries," he jokes, "so I wouldn't hav'ta go out and kill 'em. Ya see it took years for us to get to this point - we're now hotter and nastier than ever."
Dandy found himself in a uniquely successful position when he sat down to discuss Black Oak Arkansas' famed 1976 Reading show, which had been recorded and released by the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Speaking of the early years, Dandy relates, "It didn't take me 30 years to learn how to sing, it took me 30 years to get over all the damage I did when I was at the top of the world." From 1972 to 1977, Black Oak Arkansas was among the top five money-making bands in the world. They headlined arenas, sold out stadiums and threw all-night parties with the likes of Aerosmith, Kiss and Bad Company. "Most of the big acts opened for us," remembers Dandy. "Hell, Kiss even burned down one of our backdrops."
As performer and frontman, Jim Dandy was the notorious outlaw of Arkansas, strutting his stuff in sprayed-on white spandex, knee-high leather boots and a dripping wet shirt opened to the navel. Right above his crotch hung a big shiny gold star which doubled as a belt buckle. Jim loved the ladies and the ladies loved Jim…and his shiny gold star. He was the leader of the "Black Oak Wild Bunch," a gang of kids run out of town in their teens for stealing a P.A. system (that didn't even work) from the local school.
Jim Mangrum got the nickname "Jim Dandy" from his daddy well before his tenth birthday. Raised in the town of Black Kansas (population 200), Mangrum grew up all boy, which included bumps, humps, bruises and fights, with lots of alcohol and foot-long, home grown reefer along the way. "I had five fights a week behind the same barn, got to where I was pretty good at it" claims Dandy, "I was long-winded and hard-headed." Mangrum was kicked out of five public schools before the State of Arkansas kicked him out for good. The Black Oak Wild Bunch packed up and headed for the mountains. Four years later they came down as a bunch of good 'ole Southern boys playing pedal steel guitar and scrub-boards with mangy hair in need of washing. The wild bunch called themselves the Knowbody Else and made their first recording in Memphis for Stax Records. The year was 1968.
By 1970, they'd moved out to Los Angeles for better weather, better women and a better record contract. Signed to Atlantic by Ahmet Ertegun in 1971, Black Oak took on their real name and woke the recording industry up to the renegade ways of Black Oak Arkansas. Jim Dandy led his fierce band of mountain musicians through some 300 gigs a year. They had names like Rickie "Ricochet" Reynolds, Pat "Dirty" Dougherty, "Little" Jimmy Henderson, Stanley "Goober" Knight and Wayne "Squeezebox" Evans. Each night Dandy would preach his sermons of sin and retribution from the pulpit of the stage. With all that exposure came the good and the bad. Rock critics hated them, preachers hated them, and most of all, moms and dads hated them. But the kids kept buying records.
Black Oak had reached their stride when, in 1973, Dandy got a phone call from Elvis Presley. Dandy tells the story, "He was calling to suggest we do LaVern Baker's 'Fifties hit, Jim Dandy (To The Rescue),' and when the King tells you to do something, you just do it." The single jumped to number one in the nation, breaking the doors wide open. Recalls Dandy, "I thought of myself as two stories high and bulletproof, loaded up with a steady diet of Rock and Roll, and me with a microphone - Lord have mercy!"
Three years later, Black Oak Arkansas' record count had reached eleven - almost two albums a year since first signing with their label. They had brought Tommy Aldridge (later to play with Pat Travers, Ozzy Osbourne and Whitesnake) on as a new drummer, and replaced 'Burley' Jett with 'Little' Jimmy Henderson. While touring behind their then-new album Balls of Fire, they pulled into a grassy lot outside of London to headline England's biggest rock event, the Reading Festival. Sharing the bill were Ted Nugent and Dandy's personal favorite, Thin Lizzy. Black Oak had decided it would be the gig that would put them over the top. "That was the height of a five-year period for us," admits Jim. "We started the show with a great version of 'Hot Rod,' then went right into 'Rock 'N' Roll,' 'Great Balls Of Fire' and 'Hot and Nasty.' Man, we were smokin' right from the start."
Filling out the stage was a pretty little singer the band had met in Evansville, Indiana. When she stepped up to the microphone, the crowd fell silent until they heard the voice of Ruby Starr, the only one that could share the same stage with Jim Dandy's. "She was to Black Oak what Calamity Jane was to Wild Bill Hickok," Dandy recollects of Starr. "We loved her like kin and saw her as one of us all the way - the only female in our lives that could run with the Black Oak Wild Bunch and not cause trouble." Sadly, Ruby Starr died in 1995 from an inoperable brain tumor. Dandy clears his throat, "and like Wild Bill, I will never let her memory die. We dedicate a song to her every night that we play. She was a champion among women…a fun-lovin' good-hearted gal who sang her ass off."
As a band, Black Oak Arkansas has influenced three decades of aspiring musicians, including Jesse James Dupree of Jackyl, Vince Neil, David Lee Roth and Guns 'N' Roses. They still get the occasional preacher bringing his "hell fire and damnation" picket to the gates of their shows, but of his life with his own legacy Dandy confesses, "The world needed something from the great state of Arkansas, so we gave it to 'em." Fans of real, down and dirty Southern rock, come and get it.