By Team Backbeat
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Black Oak Arkansas lead singer Jim "Dandy" Mangrum and his family have just spent the night huddled under a mattress in their bathtub as a string of tornadoes blew through their west Tennessee town. But when the time for an interview rolls around, he's ready to rock--and why not? After all, Dandy, who's fifty, has been the center of a storm or two in his day, and he seems eager to cause more. Check, for example, his comments about fellow Arkansan and President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton.
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"Bill Clinton? Oh, yeah, he's a good friend of mine," Dandy announces. "I've known him since before he was attorney general. We used to smoke together."
Smoke? As in marijuana? As in the illicit substance President Clinton tried but didn't inhale?
"Oh, yeah," Dandy exclaims, sounding like a dream witness for special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. "He was a leader of NORML back then. He promised me he was gonna legalize pot and socialize medicine. Yeah. And he says he didn't inhale? Well, I ain't saying he's a liar. I didn't inhale, either."
If so, that's practically the only thing Dandy hasn't done. As the frontman for Black Oak Arkansas, which was named after his hometown, Dandy has been wearing out stages across the country for the better part of three decades. The band's hormone-powered Southern boogie was loud, rude and eager to please, and so was Dandy himself. His lengthy tresses, spandex pants and heavy-metal wailing inspired countless singers; in fact, onetime Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth lifted practically his entire shtick from the singer. Plenty of others loved the group's raunchy R&R as well, but not the era's music journalists, many of whom regarded Dandy as the worst musical joke America ever produced. The slagging peaked in 1973, when Creem critic Lester Bangs suggested that someone shoot and kill Dandy in order to spare the ears of the record-buying public.
Fortunately for Dandy, negative reviews bounce right off him. "I am the most profound radical nonconformist of our time," he declares, "and I've always upset people like that. They either love me like nothin' or I upset them greatly, and that doesn't bother me. I kind of like it. See, I was a leader and spokesman of a reactionary group, and that's far out when you consider I was from a place where people were afraid to speak their own mind even inside their own living rooms."
According to Dandy, the peanut-sized hamlet of Black Oak was a place where convention, not cotton, was king. Dandy reacted to the environment by turning himself into the diametric opposite of his neighbors. "I was the first longhair in Arkansas, and I know what being a thorn in their side is like. I had five fights a week behind the same barn for a long time. Until we got the music, I was fightin' 'em one at a time."
Young Jim and his mates began their musical mission in a typically unconventional way--by breaking into their high school and stealing the public-address system. After receiving lengthy suspended sentences for this act, the boys relocated to the woods outside town. Dandy was glad to escape. "Boring mediocrity is the only thing I'm scared of," he says. "And that's what Black Oak was all about."
After rustling up some gear and getting their chops in order, Dandy and his partners in crime (then playing under the handle Knowbody Else) landed a deal with Stax Records in the late Sixties. Shortly thereafter, they adopted the Black Oak moniker and signed to an even bigger company, Atlantic. Their rise amazes Dandy to this day. "We stood for something that I'm proud of," he emphasizes. "We showed a lot of young people that you could come from somewhere small and still do it. You just gotta have more willpower; you've gotta have more everything. And you've got to know what you want and what it's about.
"We were honest is what we was," he continues. "We were bone-cold, right-between-your-eyes honest. We also proved that marijuana, hair down to your ass and talkin' about things like karma and gettin' hot and nasty right there in the interior of the whole sacred nation itself...well, we proved that those things were."
"Hot & Nasty," the 1971 song that put Black Oak on the map, typified Dandy's approach. He describes it as "a joke about lettin' nature take its course, when all your peers were sayin' you're gonna go to hell for that. Kids shouldn't be told they're goin' to hell, because they might believe it someday and think, 'If I'm going to hell, I'm gonna raise some,' and they'll turn out to be a different person. We were just tryin' to make 'em laugh about it a little and get over it."
Not that Dandy had anything against the pleasures of the flesh. He traces his obsession with such matters to his small-town upbringing. "There were 272 people there; they were all farmers, and it was mostly boys around my age. There were no girls around, and that's why sex had so much to do with my music. It was the one thing that was at the top of my mind and deep in my heart at the same time." He adds, "I misled millions of people, but I never had nothin' I couldn't wash off with soap and water. Nah, nah, I take that back: I caught the clap two times and had to use ointment on them little ol' boogers."
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