Black Oak Arkansas is an American Southern rock band named after the band's hometown of Black Oak, Arkansas. The band reached the height of its fame in the 1970s with ten charting albums released in that decade. Their style is punctuated by multiple guitar players and the raspy voice and on-stage antics of vocalist Jim "Dandy" Mangrum.
Black Oak Arkansas, originally named "The Knowbody Else," was formed in 1963 by some "high school pals" living in the area around Black Oak, Arkansas. Original members included Ronnie "Chicky Hawk" Smith (vocals), Rickie Lee (alternately "Ricochet" or "Risky") Reynolds (guitar), Stanley "Goober Grin" Knight (guitar), Harvey "Burley" Jett (guitar), Pat "Dirty" Daugherty (bass), and Wayne "Squeezebox" Evans (drums). At some point the band and Ronnie "Chicky Hawk" Smith agreed that a mutual friend named James "Jim Dandy" Mangrum would make a better front man, while Smith agreed that he himself would make a better stage production manager.
The band's first PA system was stolen from Monette High School. The group then cleaned out an old galvanized grain bin on the edge of town and began blasting out ear-piercing sounds that echoed their special blend of music that came from rock, gospel, country and blues influences. Members of the group were subsequently charged in absentia with grand larceny and sentenced to 26 years at the Tucker Prison Farm, a sentence that was later suspended. This led to their retreat to the hills of rural north-central Arkansas where they lived off the land and refined their musical style. They also lived in Long Beach, Mississippi and played at the local Lobe theater/dance hall and the short-lived venue, "The Black Rainbow." Some of their influences during this time were the Beatles and the Byrds.
The Knowbody Else moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1969 and signed a record deal with Stax Records. Their self-titled debut album was largely ignored by the public. During this time the band became interested in psychedelia and Eastern spiritualism which, combined with their Southern Baptist upbringing, contributed to their sound.
After several trips to Los Angeles, California, in 1970, the band was signed by Atco Records (whose parent label Atlantic Records once had a partnership with Stax) and rechristened "Black Oak Arkansas". Their self-titled debut album Black Oak Arkansas was released in 1971, and is generally regarded by fans as the band's best. The record featured enduring BOA classics like "Hot And Nasty", "Lord Have Mercy On My Soul", "Uncle Lijiah" (written in pseudo-tribute to Harvey Jett's real-life great uncle) and "When Electricity Came To Arkansas", which was accused by fundamentalist religious groups of containing backward-masked "Satanic messages" (possibly from a live performance of the song in which Mangrum utters "dog si eh" and "natas" three times). The band toured extensively, gaining a reputation as a premier live act throughout the early '70s all across America, and later even in Europe. Keep the Faith followed in 1972, featuring the manic concert staple "Fever In My Mind". Drummer Wayne Evans left the band and was replaced by journeyman skinsman Tommy Aldridge on BOA's next release If an Angel Came to See You, Would You Make Her Feel at Home?, which featured another enduring BOA concert favorite, "Mutants Of The Monster" and expanded on the group's eclectic musical style.
In 1973, Black Oak Arkansas released their fourth LP Raunch 'N' Roll Live, and took the rather unorthodox tack of including previously unreleased new songs on their first live concert album like "Gigolo", "Gettin' Kinda Cocky", as well as two more BOA classics: "Hot Rod", which features Dandy's sly double-entendre lyrics, and "Up", which spotlights Aldridge's marathon drum solo, a portion of which he played with his bare hands. The four new songs were originally recorded and intended to be included on the follow-up studio album to If an Angel Came to See You..., but when Atco Records realized the band's true strong suit was their concert act, the live album resulted. Raunch 'N' Roll Live was re-issued in 2007 by Rhino Records as a 2-CD set containing both concerts that the original vinyl album was culled from. The band's fifth album, High on the Hog, also released in '73, ended up being the high point of BOA's career, peaking at number 52 on the Billboard albums chart. Vocalist Ruby Starr (future vocalist Grey Ghost) also toured intermittently with Black Oak during this period, and her raspy voice can be heard on the group's remake of LaVern Baker's 1957 hit "Jim Dandy," which reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. Baker's song was recorded at the suggestion of Elvis Presley, when he invited them to Graceland. 'Hog' also included perennial favorite "Happy Hooker" and the instrumental "Moonshine Sonata", as well as edgier songs like "Red Hot Lovin'" and "Mad Man".
The band was riding high on the concert trail as well by this time, headlining large venues like Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium and Charlotte Motor Speedway, and even Royal Albert Hall in London, England. Black Oak Arkansas also played at the famous California Jam festival in Ontario, California on April 6, 1974. The massive concert attracted over 200,000 fans, and BOA appeared alongside 1970s rock giants Black Sabbath, Eagles, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Deep Purple, Earth, Wind & Fire, Seals and Crofts and Rare Earth, and portions of the show were telecast on ABC Television in the US, exposing the band to a wider audience.
The follow-up to High On The Hog, 1974's, Street Party (featuring "Son Of A Gun", "Hey Ya'll" and "Dixie", as well as a cover of the Motown classic "Dancing In The Street"), may have failed to maintain the momentum, but another 1974 release entitled Early Times, a shelved Stax recording by The Knowbody Else (now released on the back of their success and under the BOA banner), made up for lost time. Guitarist Harvey Jett left the band after Street Party and was replaced by "Little" Jimmy Henderson in 1975 and he debuted on the band's final studio album for Atco Records, Ain't Life Grand. Grand included a snarly remake of George Harrison's Beatles classic "Taxman", as well as new originals like "Fancy Nancy", "Rebel", "Good Stuff", "Cryin' Shame" and "Let Life Be Good To You". The band signed a contract with MCA and promptly released X-Rated later in 1975, which marked the beginning of Black Oak Arkansas' decline. In 1976 they released two fairly nondescript and unsuccessful albums for MCA, Balls of Fire and 10 Yr Overnight Success, the latter of which as a five-piece band with the departure of Rickie Reynolds, who was more or less replaced on tour by keyboardist Marius Penczner during this period. Also in '76, Atco released a final BOA contractual obligation album, the poorly-recorded, but high-spirited Live Mutha, recorded on Mother's Day, 1975 in Long Beach, CA.
Following continued diminishing returns of the band's record sales (yet while still remaining a consistent concert draw), Mangrum dropped "Arkansas" from the group's name (in an attempt to downplay their Southern-ness) and replaced everyone except Henderson and even altering his own vocal style in an attempt to sound more mainstream (and ostensibly impress music critics in the process. The other members of the "Black Oak" lineup were Greg Reding (guitar and keyboards), Jack Holder (guitar), Andy Tanas (bass), and Joel Williams (drums). Black Oak released two albums on the struggling Capricorn Records, Race with the Devil in 1977 and I'd Rather Be Sailing the following year. Neither album sold well. In 1978, guitarist Shawn Lane joined the band at age 14 and toured with the band for four years.
In the early '80's, Jim Dandy temporarily left the band for health reasons, but Rickie Lee Reynolds kept the band going with former Zorro bassist Jack Brumby, AW Zeugner, and Lester John. Bob Simpson took on lead vocals at first, but was later replaced by Randy Ruff for almost three years, until Mangrum's return. In 1984, the band released Ready as Hell. Though the name "Black Oak Arkansas" was on the album cover, "Jim Dandy" appeared above it in larger type, almost as if it were a solo effort. Ready as Hell featured a heavier sound with pinch harmonics and keyboards featured throughout. The album was also Rickie Lee Reynolds's first recording with Mangrum since the MCA years. In 1986, The Black Attack Is Back continued the heavy style of the previous album and featured the particularly adventurous track "I Want A Woman With Big Titties". Again, "Jim Dandy" received top billing on the album cover (though "BOA"--the band's initials--did appear above the frontman's name). Like its predecessor, Black Attack made no commercial headway. In 1992, the band released Rebound, this time under the band's aegis, with similar results. Things changed little with 1999's The Wild Bunch, which was released under the name "Jim Dandy's Black Oak Arkansas."
James Mangrum has continued recording and touring with a series of different Black Oak lineups, up to the present day. Black Oak Arkansas currently enjoys a loyal fan following. However, the later lineups have yet to duplicate the level of album sales that the original lineup generated in the early-mid 1970s. Jim Dandy is credited with inspiring Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth's image and onstage persona as well. In addition, in the 1980s former Maine State Representative Chris Greeley once 'opened' for them as a member of the rock band Toyz.
Singer Ruby Starr succumbed to cancer on January 14, 1995. Original Black Oak Arkansas guitarist Stanley Knight died on February 16, 2013, just four days after his 64th birthday following a brief battle with cancer.
The band released a new album for Atlantic Records/Atco Records on October 15, 2013 titled "Back Thar N' Over Yonder". The album contains 5 newly recorded songs and 10 previously unreleased 1970's tracks which were produced by Tom Dowd. The new songs feature a line-up of original and current members. Reunited originals Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, Rickie Lee "Risky" Reynolds, Pat "Dirty" Daughtery, and Jimmy "Soybean" Henderson, were joined by current drummer Johnnie Bolin, bassist George Hughen, lead guitarist Hal McCormack and guitarist Buddy Church. The first single off the record "Plugged In And Wired" was released August 26, 2013. The band is currently touring to support the album.
Note: all of BOA's original Atco albums have been reissued on CD by Wounded Bird Records in 2000/2001, except High On The Hog, which has been reissued by Rhino Records; also note that in 2013, the first five Atco studio albums (BOA, Keep the Faith, If an Angel Came to See You, High on the Hog, and Street Party) were collected/reissued in a slipcase box set, titled Black Oak Arkansas: Original Album Series [UPC: 081227968373] by Rhino Entertainment.