Adapted from the forthcoming “Sittin’ On A Mountaintop: The Rise and Fall of Black Oak Arkansas”
Summer 1979. A small boy is doing his daily bicycle inspections of the ditches in his rural Arkansas neighborhood. In the shimmering heat, he spies a gem glistening in the muck and weeds: a pink eight-track tape with muddy piping, all wrapped in a black bow of errant quarter-inch magnetic tape. “Pussy pink,” the singer of the band on the tape would describe it to the boy years later. But such vulgarities would be lost on the child now as he pries the object from the ditch’s depths. Knocking away the delta dirt, the worn cartridge reads “BL K O K RK NSAS.”
An artifact from a long ago tribe, obviously. But what were their beliefs and rituals? A passing motorist had apparently tossed it out in frustration long ago. The boy wouldn’t make the same mistake. He hops back on his bicycle and pedals furiously home, holding on to the small plastic box tightly. His life would never be the same again.
Rickie Lee “Ricochet” Reynolds, 73, guitarist and “The Wizard of Oak” in the band Black Oak Arkansas, died of kidney failure and cardiac arrest on Sept. 4, 2021, while being treated for COVID-19 in Memphis, where he had lived for years.
Reynolds was born Oct. 28, 1948, in Manila, Arkansas, 15 miles east of Black Oak, in west Mississippi County. The guitarist, songwriter, vocalist and author grew up in California from age 5 through junior high. Then he returned again to northeast Arkansas with a West Coast attitude and a hirsute appearance. He met his lifelong friend and partner Jim “Dandy” Mangrum in ninth grade. “We were the only longhairs in Arkansas in 1963,” Reynolds later said.
“I had five fights a week at the same barn every day after school,” Dandy recalled. “They didn’t understand me. I didn’t make them feel good. For some reason, I didn’t look right. I told Rick one day, ‘Don’t you know three chords?’ He said, ‘I know four.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s just have a band. I can’t fight these motherfuckers one at a time.”
Initially, Dandy played drums with Reynolds singing and playing guitar. Later, they rehearsed with local players J.R. Brewer and Keith McCain in a Black Oak grain elevator. “The first notes we ever played together were in Black Oak, Arkansas, so that’s what we named ourselves after,” Reynolds said.
The isolation helped forge the group’s singular style. “If we’d known what they were doing out there in California or up in New York, we’d have been doing it, too,” Dandy said. “But we had no way of knowing. Back then, they weren’t even playing country music around Black Oak, Arkansas — it was a dry county.”
Future manager Butch Stone was a student at nearby Arkansas State when he heard about Reynolds and Dandy’s band. With long hair on men in Arkansas still a rarity even as the 1960s wore on, Stone “kept hearing about these long-haired hippies that played some Byrds, some Yardbirds, and every now and then had a song of their own,” Stone said. “I know a star when I see it, and I saw that in Jim. They were just so different than everything else. They had a light show. They had their shit going on.”
The band was known then as Knowbody Else, playing Bootheel-area Legion Huts and the like. “Knowbody Else was the most unique band I had ever heard,” Glennray Tutor wrote in a 2012 release on Arf! Arf! Records of the band’s early demos. “Every member had a microphone, and sang beautiful harmonies. The band assimilated a lot of the music that was going on around them, yet came up with a very distinct style. There is a strong folk-rock feel to some of the material, while other tracks recall a mod psychedelic sound.” Indeed, the tracks, recorded in 1967 by famed Little Rock-born producer Jim Dickinson, thread the needle between The Byrds, The Stooges and Jane’s Addiction: “In performance, they played so loudly that your ears would still be ringing the next day.”
Stone subsequently helped Knowbody Else get a deal with Stax Records of Memphis. But the album tanked, with band members and Stone alleging the R&B-oriented label didn’t know how to market a white hippie band — and even nixed the idea of a band photo on the front cover. After the group’s core achieved fame as Black Oak Arkansas a few years later, however, Stax reissued its old Knowbody Else tracks.
“We changed the name of the band [to Black Oak Arkansas] actually just before we signed to Atlantic, probably six months or so before we signed with Atlantic. That was the idea of an attorney named Jerry Cohen,” as manager Stone recalled. “… I think he had some idea to tie BOA in to British Overseas Airways or something like that. That never came about.”
The Atlantic Records roster included everyone from Ray Charles to Led Zeppelin, and the label’s president, Turkish-American Ahmet Ertegun, was nearly as famous as some of its acts. “[Ahmet] flew out to Hollywood to see us at Topanga Canyon; we were playing at a place called The Corral,” Reynolds said of the legendary venue. Stone remembers The Corral crowd parting for Ertegun to get a closer look at the band “like Moses parting the Red Sea.”
“Ahmet showed up and it was totally packed. And we ended up getting signed because he liked our guitar work,” Reynolds said. “He thought Jim’s voice was kind of strange, but he liked the guitar work, the three-interplay on the guitar.”
Black Oak Arkansas’s eponymous debut — with the tiny town of Black Oak circled on a state map on the front cover — was released on Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary in March 1971. It only reached a peak of #127 on the U.S. charts, but remains the artistic high water mark of the band’s recorded output. It spawned underground radio hits like “Hot and Nasty,” “When Electricity Came To Arkansas” and “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul,” aided by airplay on KAAY’s “Beaker Street” overnight rock program in Little Rock, touting an AM signal that reached from Cuba to Canada.
On the debut, the band leavened its heavy triple-guitar attack — and Dandy’s apocalyptic squall — with a surprising country-folk side in “Memories At The Window,” “The Hills of Arkansas,” and “Uncle Elijah,” helped by Pat “Dirty” Daugherty’s melodic bass, Stanley “Goober” Knight’s organ and steel guitar, and Harvey “Burley” Jett’s banjo. The band even covered Guy Mitchell’s mid-1950s country-pop hit “Singing The Blues” (written by fellow Arkansawyer Melvin Endsley of Drasco). Add in Dandy’s washboard and a jug band session seemed nearly as likely to break out as a doom guitar riff.
“Black Oak Arkansas could become the new Rolling Stones!” concluded Rolling Stone magazine in its record review.
Starting with 1972’s sophomore effort, “Keep The Faith” — which charted higher than BOA’s debut and featured a gatefold sleeve opening to a photo courtesy of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission — critics became increasingly unimpressed. Robert Christgau wrote, “This group isn’t even hawking revival — snake oil, that’s all.”
Heroic rock critic Lester Bangs, who “made the mistake of listening to [BOA’s debut] one time and writing a fulsomely imagistic review while under the influence of amphetamines, praising it to the skies,” didn’t make the same mistake reviewing “Keep the Faith” and Dandy’s “juju-hosanna riff:” “I saw them on tour with Grand Funk, and while I felt that the lead singer’s twerpy attempts at Dr. John-ish mumbo jumbo in a wretched pseudo-Captain Beefheart voice were godawful, the three guitarists and rhythm section were full, exciting, dense and driving all the way. By the time this album came out, however, I had become so sick of this wimp dubbed Dandy’s growly pullulations that I could hardly stand to listen to it.”
Beginning in mid-1972 with its third studio album, “If An Angel Came to See You, Would You Make Her Feel at Home?” — a title so laborious it stretches around all four corners of the album jacket — renowned producer Tom Dowd would guide the group through its commercial peak. The band also dialed down the mysticism and dialed up the sex and added bombastic Tommy Aldridge to replace Wayne “Squeezebox” Evans on drums.
The band’s status as road warriors anchored by Dandy’s demented messianic stage patter, as well as the rejection of the studio tracks for its next album, was acknowledged in 1973’s live set, “Raunch ’N’ Roll.” In shrewd marketing on par with instructing fans to send mail to P.O. Box 1 in Black Oak, the album included a deed holding “honorary ownership to one square inch of heaven on earth with the compliments of the legal owners, Black Oak Arkansas.”
One of 6.3 million square-inch parcels were subdivided within an acre in Boone County “for the expressed and specific purpose of sharing with everyone who believes in the universality of man.” The deed went on, acknowledging “that no man owns the land, but merely occupies space on it, and that it is the duty of all mankind, now and tomorrow, to feel responsibility and respect for those with whom he shares possession.”
With its hit top-25 cover version of “Jim Dandy (To The Rescue),” the band’s 1973 album “High On The Hog” was its biggest seller. Critical counterpoint: “There is little to be said in favor of this band,” Cameron Crowe wrote in the April 7, 1974, issue of Los Angeles Times. “Its stage presence is obnoxiously groin-oriented and its music has consistently proven to be needless racket. Hopefully, the gas shortage will curtail its constant ‘on the road’ status. Black Oak’s fifth album, ‘High On the Hog,’ is typically unnecessary.”
Famed album illustrator Joe Petagno, better known for fantasy and sci-fi, did the Li’l Abner-inspired “Hog” album cover depicting the band astride a large sow, suckling piglets beneath her, in a Dogpatch-like tableau. Although some Black Oak residents have historically not appreciated the association with the band, today, that image is now a mural in Black Oak Arkansas’s namesake town in Craighead County.
Meanwhile, Black Oak Arkansas had gotten its own land deed for sharing with everyone who believes in the universality of man when it bought property on Bull Shoals Lake although the band erected a tall privacy fence. The compound was a former resort with cabins for everyone, said to be strategically located on the Marion-Baxter county line so that the sheriffs with jurisdiction could only approach by boat. It was something the band had wanted to do for a long time, with Dandy mentioning the idea to a Rolling Stone reporter as early as 1971.
“It was more than just a band. It was a hippie family. It was a commune,” Stone said. Ruby Starr, co-vocalist on “Jim Dandy To The Rescue,” became part of the fabric of the band during this time. She lived across the road from the band’s compound in Cabin One of a resort called Persimmon Point where spillover from the band stayed. It was Starr who gave Reynolds the nickname “the Wizard of Oak.”
Despite the promise of relaxation at the band’s land, Black Oak Arkansas maintained its punishing touring schedule and too-prolific recording schedule, releasing “Ain’t Life Grand” on Atco in April 1975, and “X-Rated” that September on new label MCA. The latter scraped the U.S. top 100 bouyed by an anomalous balled, “Strong Enough to Be Gentle,” which hit the top 90. It was the band’s last song to chart.
The first half of 1976 saw two more album releases. There was another live album (“Live! Mutha,” because it was recorded on Mother’s Day, duh) and a new studio album, “Balls of Fire,” which — but for a wrestling champion-style belt, some jewelry, and airbrushing — depicts a nude Jim Dandy on the cover.
The band also sued Harrison, Arkansas-based preacher J.D. Tedder that year after he called them a “mongrel group of satanic origins promoting drugs, sex, revolution.” Black Oak Arkansas won, although it was only awarded a symbolic $1 in damages. “The group seems to attract charges like that,” the Arkansas Gazette noted in 1977 before defending the band for its many charitable acts and recording public service announcements against hard drugs. Especially in its home state, the band was known for being a soft touch for charity, giving away thousands to everyone from politicians to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “We were involved,” Stone said.
“I saw [the band] initially as a force for good. Which is why we got involved in politics, because we wanted to affect change. We stood up against things we didn’t like. And back in those days, there was a lot of shit going on that we didn’t like. Preachers talking about backwards masking. All that crap going on. A lot of people with long hair getting killed just because they had long hair. Vietnam, all that stuff. Nixon. … Every time I came along and I asked [the band] for money to support a politician, they never said no.”
Reynolds left in late 1976 and settled into married life in Memphis, not appearing on “10 Year Overnight Success,” the band’s 11th album in five years. Subsequently, and also without Reynolds, the group shortened its name to merely “Black Oak,” and entered an often overlooked period of softening the band’s image as sex-crazed hillbillies, with added keyboards and a smoothed out sound. Dandy toned down his wolfman howl in favor of a more traditional approach and diversified his lyrical subject matter somewhat beyond copulation. Dandy was even billed as “J.D. Mangrum” on November 1977’s “Race With the Devil,” released on the quintessential Southern Rock label Capricorn. However, as manager Stone assessed, “the MCA albums didn’t sell, and the Capricorn albums did even worse.”
But Reynolds rejoined, and the band reemerged, releasing two albums in the mid-1980s. Although billed during this time as Jim Dandy’s Black Oak Arkansas, Reynolds remained the group’s rock for the rest of his life, even fronting the band when Dandy was sidelined. The 1980s saw the rise of the new wave of British heavy metal and hair metal, the two rock subgenres that borrowed the most from Black Oak Arkansas — from the heavy multiple guitar attack down to the spandex. Bands from Van Halen to Guns N’ Roses were obviously influenced by the band. Meanwhile, hip-hop has sampled the crisp drum breaks of Evans and Aldridge at least since The Beastie Boys’ landmark “Paul’s Boutique” album in 1989. But ardor for the once-hot and nasty group had largely cooled, and the decade also saw lawsuits between the band and former manager Stone over funds and the rights to the Black Oak Arkansas name. As members came and went over the years, Reynolds and Dandy remained the band’s stalwarts.
Even as recording opportunities dwindled, the band kept up its full touring schedule well into the 21st century, appearing often in its home state with both Reynolds and Dandy based in Memphis. In 2013, an assemblage of a few new songs and the previously-rejected 1970s-era tracks called “Back Thar N’ Over Yonder” were released on the band’s old label. Touring in advance of the album’s release, the band played Los Angeles’ Whisky A Go-Go for the first time since 1971, played in New York City for the first time in 32 years, and performed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for an estimated 1.2 million fans. In 2019, Black Oak Arkansas released its first album of new material in years, “Underdog Heroes,” although more recent tour dates in 2020 and 2021 have been hampered by the pandemic.
In addition to his work as the anchor in Black Oak Arkansas, Reynolds dabbled in fantasy writing (“Evil Thingies,” published in 2016), wrote a collection of rock ’n’ roll road stories for Nightflying magazine and a web series called “Rambling with Rickie Lee,” and wrote a cookbook. He also recorded his non-Black Oak Arkansas songs for a solo project called Rickie Lee and the Mutts, being especially proud of his holiday song, “Christmas Everywhere.”
“We have generations right now who come and see us. … It’s kinda weird, we get a lot of kids,” Reynolds said of performing in Black Oak Arkansas for six decades. “They come up to us and say ‘Y’all really sound good! You ought to put out a record.’ ”