In 1977, popular music was in a heightened state of flux, with all manner of musical strands woven across the airwaves and throughout the music charts. In amongst the stylistic fluidity, or anything goes chaos if you like, an East Coast based U.S. rock quartet, known as Ram Jam, released their barnstorming, Southern-boogie infused, hard rock take on a traditional blues-folk number. The track had been recorded 35 years previous by a legendary blues-based folksinger called Hudie Ledbetter, better known to blues aficionados as Leadbelly. Fuelled by a snarling lead vocal, and crunching guitar riffs, Ram Jam’s raging, rollicking rendering of ‘Black Betty’ became a world wide smash, and earned the band the, in this case an accurate, tag of one hit wonders.
Ram Jam were a quickly assembled, short lived outfit, formed around ex-Lemon Pipers’ guitarist Bill Bartlett. The Lemon Pipers had experienced their fifteen minutes of fame back in 1968 with the U.S.#1 ‘Green Tambourine’, which was representative of the band’s style of psychedelic-laced bubblegum pop. To be fair, The Lemon Pipers shelf life exceeded fifteen minutes, but not much more than a year, as they broke up shortly after their minor follow up hits, ‘Rice Is Nice’ and ‘Jelly Jungle (of Orange Marmalade)’ - something tells me The Lemon Pipers had a culinary bent, or wrote songs on an empty stomach.
After The Lemon Pipers project went sour, Bill Bartlett formed a new outfit called Starstruck, which originally included fellow ex-Pipers’ Steve Walmsley (bass) and Bob Nave (organ). The Cincinatti based Starstruck played around the traps for a few years, and by the mid 70s Bill Bartlett decided to re-record an old a cappella song, recorded by Leadbelly in 1941. Bluesman Leadbelly had adapted his version of ‘Black Betty’ from an old African-American ‘work song’, and his version clocked in at just 59 seconds. Bartlett built some guitar riffs around the lyrics, and added a new arrangement, that extended the duration of ‘Black Betty’ to around two and half minutes. Bartlett (lead vocals and guitar) recorded his version of ‘Black Betty’ with Starstruck, which at that time also included guitarist Tom Kurtz, bassist David Goldflies, and drummer Dave Fleeman. Starstruck’s version of ‘Black Betty’ received a regional only release on the band’s own Truckstar label. The high energy, hard rock song sold well locally, and soon came to the attention of New York production team, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz. Kasenetz and Katz had been a one of the driving forces, if not the virtual auteur, behind the whole late 60s ‘bubblegum pop’ movement (which included The Lemon Pipers), and had been the brains and production team behind 1910 Fruitgum Company, Crazy Elephant, and The Ohio Express. Kasenetz and Katz got the Epic label behind ‘Black Betty’, and the song received wider release as a single in mid ‘77, but credited to the hastily assembled band Ram Jam. ‘Black Betty’ debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 during June, and by September ‘77 had peaked at #18. During the same period it rocketed up both British (#7) and Australian (#3) charts, finishing 1977 as one of the biggest selling international hits of the year. In the U.S. ‘Black Betty’ attracted a deal of controversy, from objections expressed by several high profile civil rights groups over the song’s lyrics, but rather than hindering the its commercial appeal, the added publicity probably aided in driving the song further up the charts. Whatever the song’s origins, or questionable lyrical theme, Ram Jam’s rock-a-fied version was far removed, and deserved to be a hit on musical merit alone.
Bartlett was joined in studio by vocalist Mike Scavone, drummer Pete Charles and bassist Howie Blauvelt (who had played extensively with a young Billy Joel in 60s outfits, The Hassles and El Primo), to record material for an album release. By late ‘77 Ram Jam’s eponymous debut album hit the shelves, and soon after hit the charts (US#34/OZ#16). It boasted a string of rousing hard rock numbers, probably ideal for sparking a dull party into life, but aside from ‘Black Betty’, the set failed to spawn any further hits. Guitarist Jimmy Santoro was added to the line-up for Ram Jam’s subsequent national tour.
Bartlett departed Ram Jam after the initial tour wrapped up, and Santoro stayed on as a fulltime member for Ram Jam’s sophomore release. 1978’s ‘Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Ram’ was reportedly a fully fledged heavy metal affair, but aside from appealing to hard core metal heads, the album sank without a trace, and soon thereafter Ram Jam followed suit. Rock journeyman Howie Blauvelt went on to play with funk-blues outfit Spitball, and remained an active member until his death from a heart attack in 1993, whilst drummer Pete Charles has also passed away. Jimmy Santoro went on to combine playing in local New York bands with a career as a music teacher. Vocalist Mike Scavone left the music scene behind for a number of years, prior to dusting off the vocal chords (is that actually possible?) for a reunion with his old high school band The Doughboys. Billy Bartlett continued a forty-plus year love affair with music, going on to specialise as a boogie-woogie piano player.
As for the song ‘Black Betty’, in 1990 Ben Leibrand remixed Ram Jam’s original version, and released it as ‘Black Betty (Rough ‘N Ready Mix)’, as if it wasn’t already rough ‘n ready enough. The remixed version became a top twenty hit in both Britain (#13) and Australia (#18). Bartlett’s hard rock, guitar driven adaptation has been covered numerous times over the last thirty years, and Australia’s own punk-glam rock powerhouse Spider Bait revived the track once more in 2004. Backed by an equally frenetic video, Spider Bait’s manic-tempo version spent three weeks atop the Australian charts.