Black Betty by Ram Jam (Epic, 1977)


Imagine you had an older brother and/or sister growing up in the early 70s or maybe you truly did. It’s 1973 and you’re 12-year-old self is riding around with them in their shiny black Firebird with Led Zeppelin’s Houses of The Holy 8 track in the dash, the V8 motor struggling to overcome Jimmy Page’s guitar crunches during The Ocean. You sit back and think, ‘man when I can drive, I’m gonna burn rubber and crank some tunes’.

Flash forward to 1977. You got a brand spanking new driver’s license, your parent’s beat-up Dodge Dart and an empty 8-track player just waiting to be abused. You drive to your local mall, run into Record World and look for the hottest band with the hottest song. As you walk through the parking lot unwrapping your latest purchase, you push that clunky piece of plastic into the player, start the engine and take off down the street to the clanging of a gong a four on the floor bass drum, screeching guitar chords and “whoah-oh black betty, bam-a-lam, whoah-oh, black betty, bam-a-lam…”. Not exactly Dancing Days, but hey you can call Ram Jam you’re very own. Who’s Ram Jam, you ask? Exactly my point. I’m not even sure if Ram Jam knows who Ram Jam is, what a Black Betty is or why I need to even write about them in the first place, but I will.

Ram Jam was a band formed out of necessity rather than a struggling band trying to make it. Guitarist Bill Bartlett, who egged us on to watch him play his Green Tambourine in 1968 as a member of the Lemon Pipers, had formed a new band with 2 other former band members called Starstruck, not be confused with Starbuck. Between personnel changes and a lack of momentum to get a recording contract, Bill decided to play around with the Leadbelly song, Black Betty. He thought a one-minute long would be a good remake especially if you added some hard rock guitars to a disco drum beat. Not thinking much more about it, he recorded it with his bandmates and released it locally. It was actually a nice regional hit around Ohio and Jim was pleased.

That’s when Jerry Kasenetz & Jeff Katz, pop producers who were considered the purveyors of the Bubblegum sound of the late 60s, picked up on it. They invited Jim to New York, tweaked it a bit and re-released it nationally on the Epic Records label. Not only did it become a surprise Top 20 hit in the US, peaking at #18 on Labor Day weekend 1977, but it was also a bigger hit in England and Australia where it climbed into the Top 10. So the guts in Starstruck should have been ecstatic, right? Only if we’re not talking about the record industry, who decided the Ram Jam should be Bill Bartlett and a stable of New York musicians. I call it the Alan Dennison effect.

Maybe they thought the playing on the track was sub-par. They may have a point as the recording is stiffer than a starched Arrow shirt at the North Pole. Listen to that drum solo. This guy makes Carmine Appice come off like Steve Gadd. He can barely keep up with everyone. And the 45 edit doesn’t do him any favors since they cut out the little honkytonk jam section and left in the licks that wouldn’t cut it in an 8th-grade battle of the bands. But I digress….

The song, while definitely inane, probably benefited from the controversy of the lyrics, which were openly boycotted by the NAACP, even though they were written more than 40 years earlier. This song was originally made popular in the 30’s being sung by convicts in State prison farms. It may have been lost altogether had not John & Alan Lomax recorded a version in the field a prison in Sugar Land, Texas. Leadbelly recorded his version in 1939 and was credited from there on and out as the songwriter. Many have debated what or who Black Betty was: a musket, whiskey, a slave whip or even a motorcycle. When sung by Ram Jam, it could’ve been anything from a prostitute to heroin. Nowadays it’s just used to artificially pump up the crowd at sporting events. Except for that one dude way down in Alabam’, windows down, Dodge Dart kickin’ out gravel down a dusty country road til it can’t bam-a-lam no more.

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