By Lee Zimmerman
Back in the day, Black Oak Arkansas was considered one of the genuine arbiters of true Southern Rock. While the competition was formidable early on, especially given the fact that bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet were also vying for the distinction of being proclaimed the foremost prominent of all the Dixie denizens. However, Black Oak Arkansas had one thing the others didn’t have, and that was a wild man frontman in the person of Jim Dandy Mangrum, an unmistakable presence who was both over the top and always in focus with the band’s diehard devotees.
While critics sneered at their insurgent attitude and rebellious redneck designs, they had plenty of support from those who mattered. They were personally signed to Atlantic Records by the label’s legendary president, Ahmet Ertegun, and they garnered an impressive roster of fervent fans, among them President Bill Clinton, First Lady Betty Ford, Fillmore impresario Bill Graham, the demented deejay Wolfman Jack, and were honored for their charitable contributions to the state of Arkansas with a pair of proclamations and permanent presence at the Arkansas State Museum.
Of course, that wouldn’t have meant much if the public hadn’t followed suit. Three of their albums were certified gold, while one was declared platinum. Their namesake single that ensured their success, the R&B hit first recorded by singer LaVern Baker in 1956, “Jim Dandy to the Rescue,” was suggested to them by Elvis Presley and further affirmed as a hit by the man who sat behind the boards, Atlantic’s iconic producer Tom Dowd.
In the 55 years since Black Oak Arkansas first convened, the group has continued to tour, helmed by both Mangrum and original guitarist Rickie Lee Reynolds, now joined by Dandy’s personal and professional partner, singer Samantha Barnes Seauphine, drummer Lonnie Hammer, bassist Billy Little and Randall X Rawlings on lead guitar. Nevertheless, it’s also been roughly 30 years since their last album, making the appropriately named Underdog Heroes nothing less than a long awaited return.
Goldmine recently had an opportunity to chat with the ever effusive Mr. Dandy, and used the occasion to find out how the band’s been occupying their time since the last recorded encounter. To say the conversation was a bit of a rollercoaster ride is an understatement. Suffice it to say that Mr. Dandy has a lot on his mind. Buckle your seat belts, the conversation turned into a topsy turvy encounter... as much of it as we were able decipher, that is!
Goldmine: So Mr. Dandy, how does it feel to be the namesake of a famous song?
Jim Dandy: I don’t mind having a cartoon name. To be honest, I didn’t know that song existed ‘til I recorded it.
GM: Tell us about the new album...
JD: We’ve gotten over 100 great reviews on this new album. That’s the first time any time that’s ever happened. One thing we acknowledged when we first started in this business is that we didn’t know anything. We came from a town of 300 people, and nobody ever made it in any profession by the time they were 21. But it’s been a great adventure we’ve been on. This is probably the first time anyone had faith enough in us to produce an album. We’ve got to show people what we sound like in 2019 and 2020. It took us long enough to do it. It should have taken us a month and it took us 11 months.
GM: Well, sometimes...
JD: We had everything going against us—chaos, darkness and death couldn’t stop us from doing this album, so it must have been meant to be.
GM: It may have taken awhile to make, but it was also a long time in coming. It’s been 30 years.
JD: Yeah, but we put our foot down talking to Cleopatra Records. We said we wanted to do covers and they said we had to re-record some of our old songs again. I love our band and I’m so proud of it, but I don’t want to live in my own shadow. We thanked them on the album for having faith in us. It was a labor of love, and it always is when you really put your heart into something.
GM: Your cover of “Ruby’s Heartbreaker” is dedicated to your late singer Ruby Starr...
JD: I wanted to be sure my little girl wasn’t forgotten. But now we have Sammy, and she really inspires us. Anytime you see a woman in any profession trying hard to make it...well, she dances her ass off, she’s great, and she’s good looking. But we’ve been playing “Ruby’s Heartbreaker” since 1994 which is when Ruby passed away from a brain tumor. I asked a great friend of mine, Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, to write it. We’ve always been tight. He had his troubles with management, with Terry Knight, and we had ours with our manager Butch Stone. I was pretty depressed at one point. It happens after someone takes $4.2 million from you. My parents didn’t benefit from it too much. My kids didn’t benefit. I got to be famous, because with a name like Jim Dandy you get to be known worldwide.
GM: So what’s life like for you now?
JD: I’m fixing to move back to Black Oak. I can’t believe I’m saying it. It’s like I’m fixing to run away from prison or something. It was always safe. You had to learn how to use your imagination. I had to find my own ways to entertain myself (laughs), but I look back on it and now I have to get out of Memphis. (laughs) I’ve got five kids. Me and Sam have a boy who’s one year old. But I have a son is who is 53, one is 51, a daughter who is 39, and two other sons, one who is 22 and one who is 27. I’ve had four wives and the three ex-wives are three of my oldest friends. I was on the road all the time and they got lonely. But Sammy has an hourglass figure. She’s got great legs, a great ass. She knocks me out and we have a great time dancing together and everything like that. When we got married, she was 35 and I was 70. That’s the only time I revealed my age.
GM: So you’re still living in Memphis?
JD: Yeah, yeah. Our whole life, this was the closest city to where we lived. It’s corrupt as hell, but as far as the music scene goes, I first got connected to Stax Records when I was 17. I wanted to record in Willie Mitchell’s studio. That’s where we mixed down this album. I was told one day I was going to produce an album, and we had a great time doing this one. It’s got a lot of heart in it.
GM: It has an interesting selection of songs.
JD: The first song, “Don’t Let It Show,”is an Alan Parsons song. We’re using guitars instead of keyboards and Alan loves it. Then there’s a song called “Underground Heroes,” and people think we’re singing it about us. There are so many people out there that are so deserving. It’s a great song and so many people seem to like it. It’s kind of a collage of all kinds of songs. It’s kind of like a LSD trip. (chuckles) I did 3,000 trips (chuckles)...
GM: That certainly is a lot.
JD: That was way back in the ’70s before we made it. The story of Black Oak Arkansas is me and Rickie. We got kicked out of every public school in Arkansas. That’s never happened before or since in the history of the state. They wanted us to cut our hair. My daddy had a farm, and he said, just keep it clean and don’t let it get caught in the machinery. Back then I had a pageboy. I had great parents, and that was the richest part of my life. They raised me to be a good American, but I think a good American is a radical anarchist.
GM: Well, I suppose you could say that. This country was built on a rebellion.
JD: Remember the Boston Tea Party and all that? It’s a good thing that thing turned out the way it did.
GM: It’s said that Elvis Presley persuaded you to record that namesake song.
JD: Yeah, he did. He called me, and it was a wonderful phone call, but I was scared to death. He said I was born to do this song, and I didn’t know what it was, but I said I’ll do it. I first saw him on Ed Sullivan and I was lying on my grandmother’s recliner, and I thought, “This human being is having more fun than any human being I’ve ever seen in my life.” He was having so much fun, and he was making those women cry. He wasn’t afraid to show his greatness. He had to love it to do it all.
GM: You made a pretty formidable impression yourself.
JD: Back in the day, you couldn’t see rock and roll on TV until after 12 o’clock on Saturday night, on Midnight Special or In Concert. And then we did the first California Jam and that was over 300,000 people. You couldn’t even see the back row. That was an experience.
GM: You have a name that is almost indelible.
JD: My daddy gave me the name. Sometimes things are pressed upon you. It has little to do with the creation of it. I would not have picked it out. But I tell my kids I don’t mind having a cartoon nickname. Of course in the case of Black Oak Arkansas, truth is always stranger than fiction. (laughs) In the early days, we were stealing mics and speakers from gymnasiums. It was always very exciting, like hanging from skylights while Rickie is holding my feet as I’m trying to yank a speaker off the wall. You know, we were from Black Oak, and only 300 people lived there. Nobody famous ever came from there.
GM: Apparently, things went well for you.
JD: We got run out of Memphis, but I won’t get into that. We were dealing some drugs on the side to make a living. (chuckles) We had the longest hair in Memphis. All the Christian people called me “Jesus.” They saw me coming and they said, “Well, it’s about time.” We got in a van and headed for California. Thank God they didn’t have Christian rock yet. I was just saying things that people were afraid to say. I remember we were at a banquet for Ahmet Ertegun and each plate was $800. John Lennon was there and he walked over to our table. People were saying, “He’s walking over here,” and I thought they were pulling my chain, because it was John Lennon. To me, he was the epitome of a true artist, but he was always an angry young boy. So he comes over and puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Can we talk?” He told me, “I’d love to do what you do,” Then he said, “You gotta talk for the people and not to the people.” Things like that don’t often happen in the presence of 300 people. He had done that song “Power to the People,” and since this is America, freedom of speech is very important, and individuality is just as important to people like Jim Dandy. (laughs)
GM: It appears that even though you’re moving forward, you haven’t forgotten the past.
JD: No, no. John Fogerty helped me immensely. He was in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. He sees me and says, “Jim Dandy, come here!” So I said to him, “It’s great to meet you, I love all your stuff.” He lost $14 million in his legal problems, but he said, “Don’t lose your sense of humor.” At one point, I let my kids down, I let my fans down, but at least I could say I was in a good band for awhile. It’s really been a great adventure, and I love being the master of the ceremony, because it’s a sacred ceremony. It’s a sacred gathering. It really is. It takes all kinds of people who know they’re there to have its own strength. We have to stand together to save this place.
GM: So let’s get back to the subject of the band. What’s new there?
JD: We got some new blood. You’ll rarely see a woman like Sammy, someone who tries so hard. She was a resident nurse in New Orleans. She was an accountant. She was a paralegal. She did all kinds of stuff. She’s five foot tall. She dances her ass off. She’s beautiful. She knows how to work the stage and she’s got a great mind. She’s a real front person. I’m a natural agitator. Rickie Lee Reynolds has been in the band since the beginning. We’ve known each other since the ninth grade.
GM: You had some very high profile admirers back in the day—Bill Clinton, Betty Ford, Ahmet Ertegun...
JD: Oh yeah, but I could never be a politician. I’m a conversationalist. We’ve just gotten past the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat everybody else like you would want them to treat you. Sometimes rope can be a dangerous thing. You can hang yourself with it.
GM: You’ve also mingled with some interesting people.
JD: I finally met Frank Zappa, too. He was a hero of mine. My life has been so full. People talk about me, but I look up to so many people. I don’t want the praise and adoration. It feels weird. I know I’m weird already, but for me, going crazy is a pretty short drive.
GM: You’re respectable to a certain degree now. You have an exhibition in the Arkansas State Museum.
JD: We’ve always believed that you have to take care of the world. We did a lot of benefits. It’s not about being pressured to show love. You do it because you want to do it. I don’t like being predictable, but when I decided I was going to keep on doing this, it didn’t matter. It’s medicinal. My daddy once told me, “No matter what they do to you, don’t give them the pleasure of knowing they’re getting to you at all.” But I haven’t done half the things people say I’ve done. I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut, and I don’t turn tail and run when something happens. We had long hair back in the day, so you had to be careful. You still got to be careful about what you say. I’m an opinionated person, and that hasn’t changed.
GM: You used to be quite a dexterous performer. Are you still doing your patented moves onstage?
JD: I can’t do the splits any more. I quit doing that when I was 44. I. have curvature of the spine. It runs in my family. I had my front teeth knocked out. Before that I had buck teeth. I’ve been blessed with a lot of divine intervention. But I’m ready to shake the world like maracas again. As the Beastie Boys said, you got to fight for the right to party. It’s been fun. We didn’t figure we’d be around this long, but you can always learn to be better.