Interview: Black Oak Arkansas’ Rickie Lee Reynolds discusses solo track 'Christmas Everywhere' and the newly-discovered Ruby Starr
Video provided by Rickie Lee Reynolds/YouTube

Rock and roll music would not be the same if there was never a Black Oak Arkansas. Known for their multiple guitar player lineup and the wild on-stage antics of vocalist Jim Dandy, Black Oak Arkansas has always been an inventive group of legitimate virtuosos. They are easily one of the most important music groups in rock history. Bands from Van Halen to Guns N’ Roses hail Black Oak Arkansas as being a major influence. Black Oak Arkansas reached the height of their fame during the 1970s with ten charting albums, paving the way for the southern rock explosion that decade. Their classics “Jim Dandy,” (watch video) "Hot And Nasty,” and "When Electricity Came To Arkansas" still stand strong today. Founding member and guitarist Rickie Lee Reynolds has an amazing ear for music. Not only is he a magnificent composer his knowledge, command and instinct as a musical director within the group is impressive. Recently AXS was privileged to speak with him about his recent solo track “Christmas Everywhere.” (listen above)

AXS: How did you come to write a Christmas song?

Rickie Lee Reynolds: I have been writing songs with Black Oak Arkansas since forever. Over the years there have been a couple songs that were really great songs, but it just wasn’t the right time or style for Jim to sing with his voice. I am 70 years old this year, I started thinking if anything happens to me a lot these songs that I think are really good are going to be lost. I want to do an album of some of these songs so at least they are on record as having been written. The first one I recorded was Christmas Everywhere” because I am a really big fan of Christmas. I recorded it as Rickie Lee and The Mutts. A mutt is a little bit of everything so I decided to get a bunch of people and do it in the style of Eric Clapton and Friends, where you have different people on each song come in and play with you. Now if I decide to hit the road I have tons of people to pick from to go with me. The song has an old-timey feel to it, like something Bing Crosby would have sung 50 years ago.

I told my kids when I die I will have spent every cent I own. But I am leaving behind stuff. I have an amplifier and head I got from Hendrix back in ’68, my Stratocaster that Stevie Ray Vaughan played that I got from his brother. But another thing I am leaving behind are my songs. Bing Crosby’s great-great-great-great grandchildren will never have to pay for college because of the fact that he wrote one song. He wrote many hits, but that one song, “White Christmas”, is played every year. I told my kids if I write one good Christmas song it might not get played all year long but it will get played every year come November. I am not worried about me making a hit out of this song. I just want other people to hear it and say you know what, I am making a Christmas album and I need a song. This song is primed for Nashville and is just waiting for someone like Vince Gill to pick it up.

AXS: Who is singing on the track?

R.L.R.: I did all the vocals myself, all the lead and the harmonies but I did ask Jim Dandy to sing on it with me and I knew I wanted to bring this one other person in on vocals-Richard Young from the Kentucky Headhunters. We broke it up into pieces with each one of us singing. I did a pilot vocal for this track, but after listening to the pilot I ended up using the pilot track as my vocals on the song with everyone else added in. We had Buddy Church who is one of the best guitar pickers I have ever heard in my life play on it, sadly he passed away last year.

AXS: When did you discover the lost Ruby Starr tapes?

R.L.R.: Back in the ‘90s we were playing a gig and Ruby showed up. I hadn’t seen her for a really long time at that point. She came on stage and sang a few songs with us. Jim went down and did his split and Ruby did a cartwheel over him, it was wonderful. After the show, she gave me this little handmade drawstring sack and said, “Rick this is for you, open it later.” I thought it was stash and when I got back to the hotel room and opened it up all I saw was two little cassettes. I put it in a box and ended up forgetting all about it. Fast-forward a few years, a friend of mine is doing a documentary on Shawn Lane. Shawn played for us, he has passed away now. He was one of the most incredible guitar players that I have ever heard in my life and I have played with Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Jeff Beck and all those kind of people. Shawn Lane freaks all of them out because he is so good. So I was looking for these Shawn recordings I had in this box and I found the Ruby cassettes. These were 25-year-old tapes so I took them down to the studio to play them in case they ended up turning to dust at least we had a recording. This was all studio stuff that Ruby did that no one had ever heard before. These tracks are phenomenal! I still can’t get over her voice. It was a gift from God. There was so much demand from Ruby’s fans on social media for these songs. I wanted to help keep her name out in the public and didn’t care about the money, I just wanted her fans to have this music. I founded a Ruby Starr Trust. All the money that is made off the sales of these songs goes into the fund. Ruby passed away from cancer in the mid-‘90s from cancer. I decided since we were here in Memphis I will give all the money to St. Jude’s Children's Research Hospital for cancer research. Order here.

AXS: Lonnie Hammer (Hammer Down Hard, Black Oak Arkansas, Jack Russell’s Great White, EMN) told us the Spinal Tap producers based the band’s look after you and Jim Dandy. True?

R.L.R.: Rob Reiner was the producer of the movie. He said they found actors that were capable of performing and then made them up to look what at that time rock stars were supposed to look like. They pulled up Black Oak Arkansas High On The Hog album, which is a cartoon on the cover. It was a caricature of all the guys in Black Oak on the back of a big pig. They picked out the image of Jim Dandy with the flowing blonde hair to be the look of the lead singer and they picked me out for the look of their bass player. I am not a bass player but I had the look of a rock star of the time. A lot of younger kids are getting turned on to Black Oak Arkansas now because of movies. Dazed And Confused has three of our songs on the soundtrack, it is a cult movie. Kids love it.

AXS: You have known and worked with some of the most influential musicians over your illustrious career, what were some of your favorite moment on or off the stage?

R.L.R.: There is not enough space in this article to tell you all the road stories I have to tell. I am going to write a book with all of them someday. I did get to meet all The Beatles except for Paul McCartney. Once when we were playing the Hollywood Palladium was told to pick who our opening act would be. We chose Chuck Berry. Chuck showed up just himself and his guitar. He had no backing band with him. The Rolling Stones were in town, Keith Richards and I were friends and used to swap our amps around for gigs depending on where we were playing. So we got a hold of The Stones and got them to be Chuck Berry’s backing band. We didn’t tell Chuck! It ended up being a sold out show! People started breaking down the door because they heard The Rolling Stones were playing in there. Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts with Billy Preston on keyboards and Chuck Berry on guitar for our opening act. When we tried to leave fans would rush the limousine and begin shaking it so we couldn’t leave. All of a sudden sirens are blaring and ambulances pull up. They take people from inside out on stretchers, heads covered with a sheet and all bloody. The bodies were loaded in and the ambulances take off with all the bells and whistles over to the Beverly Hilton and pull up to the valet parking. They open the back of the ambulance and we jump out of the stretchers! There are thousands of stories like that.

AXS: There is a petition out for getting Black Oak Arkansas inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

R.L.R.: Little Steven from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the one responsible for starting the drive to get us inducted into the RRHF. I have mixed feelings. In my opinion, getting into the RRHF nowadays is like being the King of Rhode Island. It is an honor, but it is no longer about rock and roll. Don’t get me wrong, they are inducting a lot of people into the Hall of Fame that are incredible musicians and artists, but they are not all rock and roll. If they are going to do that they need to change the name to the Music Hall of Fame. Then go ahead and bring in rappers and Blues stars and all these other people. Right now a lot of Rock people are getting really frustrated with the whole thing. They are not getting inducted and rap people who never wrote or recorded a rock song in their life are inducted. My friend Goldy was in the band Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf has been nominated four times, they finally got in last year. Goldy was told he had to pay $30,000 to sit at his own induction ceremony so he didn’t go. He couldn’t afford that. It was a great honor to him and he got the award and everything but he couldn’t go to the ceremony because they charge the artists so much money to go…The RRHF is falling out of favor with some musicians because of how they have diversified. Not that these people aren’t worthy of accolades, they just don’t belong in the RRHF if they are going to call it that. There are dozens and dozens of rock bands that have not been inducted yet and the fans are starting to get irked now too. Why not have a Rap Hall of Fame, a Jazz Hall of Fame, and R&B Hall of Fame and put everyone in their category if they want to or change it all to the Music Hall of Fame.

AXS: Black Oak Arkansas has a new album coming out soon. We had the chance to hear some of the tracks at rehearsal, there are some really fantastic tracks there!

R.L.R.: I got to tell you this album, Underdog Heroes-what an album! I have done 23 Black Oak albums and in the past, I was like I am happy with how this turned out or I wish it would have turned out this way, but I don’t listen to them a lot. I like it. All the albums are on the wall, every once in a while I will listen to them. Underdog Heroes though I swear I have listened to it a hundred times. I did a lot of the mixing and all myself but I also did it with Boo Mitchell, who is Willie Mitchell’s son. Willie did all of Al Green’s stuff, he’s got a great old studio here in Memphis. We used some effects we never used before. Every time I listen to the album I hear something I have never heard before. Jim and I have always done a lot of the production on our albums but never got the credit for it. This album has new 10 original songs written by Jim and I. We also did that great song “Heartbreaker” by Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad. The other song we added was “Don’t Let It Show” by The Alan Parsons Project. A few months ago Jim was hanging out with the guys from Poison and they said our new album slammed. Mind you we haven’t released it yet, they said Alan Parsons talks about it all the time.

AXS: It has been said by some that David Lee Roth from Van Halen based his stage performance from watching Jim Dandy on stage. Others say not so. Have you ever heard from Dave about this?

R.L.R.: Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses told me that he, Van Halen and several other groups were influenced by us. We talked to Eddie Van Halen one time and he said David Lee used to go to our shows and would actually videotape them to save and watch. Jim thinks that is the biggest compliment to him, having someone else like your style so much they study it. I am not talking music, but the stage show. If you are going to be an entertainer you better entertain. Put on a show!