No. 90: Ram Jam, ‘Black Betty’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs
Their lead singer and guitarist played with the Lemon Pipers, of ‘Green Tambourine’ fame. The rest of the band members never even played on this highly offbeat entry on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list. Welcome to the wild and crazy story that is ‘Black Betty’ by Ram Jam.
Once the Lemon Pipers dissolved, guitarist Bill Bartlett formed a new band called Starstruck with two fellow Pipers. A later incarnation of that band (Bartlett was the lone remaining Lemon Piper by this time) recorded a rock version of Leadbelly’s interpretation of the traditional work song ‘Black Betty,’ and released it on their own label.
The song was a regional hit, and caught the attention of a couple of New York producers, who re-packaged Bartlett with a new group of musicians and christened them Ram Jam. The song was a huge hit out of the box, reaching No. 18 in the U.S. while climbing into the top 10 in Australia and Bartlett’s native England.
Listening to the song today, it’s hard not to look back fondly at what was a much simpler time in the music industry, because this kind of song will never, ever happen again. It begins with a thunderous kick drum, some rafter-shaking riffs by Bartlett, and that unforgettable ‘Whoa, black Betty, bam-ba-lam‘ vocal. At this point, the song sounds like a slightly glammier ‘Mississippi Queen’ (check those synth washes), the kind of track that would rock a concert hall and pack a dancefloor.
No one could have suspected, then, that the band would veer hard right at the 1:30 mark and launch into an Allman Brothers-fueled freakout. A two-minute freakout, in a song a little less than four minutes long, no less. There are also no less than three moments where an audible splice of the master tape can be heard. As we said, simpler times.
At the same time, one cannot overlook the band’s raw enthusiasm, which rose above the seemingly disparate influences to create the kind of song that challenges at least one artist every decade or so to improve upon it, though to date, no one has come close.
Watch Ram Jam Perform ‘Black Betty’