The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

A Genuinely Weird Rock ’n’ Roll Story

Posted on | April 25, 2022 | Comments Off on A Genuinely Weird Rock ’n’ Roll Story

Do you see that guy with the gold top Gibson Les Paul guitar? That’s Bill Bartlett, lead guitarist of a one-hit-wonder band from 1967. The Lemon Pipers had formed in 1966 in the college town of Oxford, Ohio, and signed a deal with New York-based Buddah Records. Their first single, an original written by Bartlett, was a flop, so the record company told the group’s producer, Paul Leka, to team up with Brill Building songwriter, Shelley Pinz, to write the band a hit song. The result was “Green Tambourine,” a song which the band hated — they were a rock group, and this was a silly pop tune — but it went all the way to Number One in early 1968. Despite this sudden success, however, the Lemon Pipers weren’t able to follow up with any more hits, and broke up in 1969.

Buddah Records was home to a production team — Super K Productions, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz — which specialized in so-called “bubble gum” pop. The Super K guys weren’t much for the whole “artistic integrity” thing, they were about money and didn’t care how they got it. They recorded a group called The Rare Breed, but the musicians quit in a dispute with the producers, so Kasenetz and Katz found an Ohio group called Sir Timothy & the Royals and renamed them the Ohio Express. Kasenetz and Katz then took recordings done by The Rare Breed, released these under the name of the new band, and had a Top 40 hit called “Beg, Borrow and Steal” in late 1967. Then a songwriter named Jon Levine sent them a demo for a tune called “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” Kasenetz and Katz liked the demo so much, they released it as a single under the Ohio Express name, even though nobody in the band sang or played on it! That made the Top Five on the charts in 1968.

Fast-forward a few years. After the breakup of the Lemon Pipers, Bill Bartlett had returned to Ohio and, while attending Miami University in Oxford, formed a new band that at times included three players from the Lemon Pipers and various other musicians. This new band was called Starstruck and they gigged around at clubs for two or three years before getting serious in 1975. They did some recordings at a studio in Cleveland and paid to have 1,000 copies of a single pressed, This record, a rocked-out version of an old blues song, got a decent amount of airplay on Ohio radio stations, becoming something of a regional hit. The group got a management deal and played as an opening act for such big names as Edgar Winter, Foghat, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Alas, no major record company seemed interested and the band broke up in late 1975.

In spring 1976, a few months after Starstruck broke up, Bill Bartlett got a call from Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz, whom he knew from his Buddah Records days with the Lemon Pipers. Kasenetz and Katz were looking to put together a new hard-rock band, and Barlett was invited to audition, so he went to New York and took with him a copy of the single he’d recorded with Starstruck. Kasenetz and Katz loved it, and Barlett then returned to Ohio with an offer for his former bandmates: $3,000 for their rights to the recording, take it or leave it. They took the money.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about this song. In the 1920s and ’30s, musicologist John Lomax and his son Alan traveled the country doing “field recordings” of American folk songs. Among the places they recorded was the Central State Prison Farm in Sugarland, Texas, where one of the inmates was James “Iron Head” Baker, a habitual criminal who described himself as “the roughest n***er what ever walked the streets of Dallas.” Baker and his fellow inmates sang several of their work songs for the Lomax recording in 1933, and one of the tunes was recorded in 1939 by folk blues legend Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.

How this tune came to the attention of a rock band in Ohio in the 1970s is a mystery, but this was the recording for which Kasenetz and Katz were willing to pay $3,000, to do one of their classic moves. Rather than have the new group re-record the song, Kasenetz and Katz simply took the Starstruck version of the song and did some editing which they released under the name of their new band, Ram Jam.

Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Black Betty had a child (Bam-ba-lam)
The damn thing gone wild (Bam-ba-lam)
Said it weren’t none of mine (Bam-ba-lam)
The damn thing gone blind (Bam-ba-lam)

“Black Betty” became a Top 20 hit in the United States in 1977, and made it to the Top 10 in England and Australia. At one point, the NAACP tried to mount a boycott against “Black Betty,” but that effort fizzled after it was learned that this was actually a black folk song from the 1930s.

Ram Jam released an album and toured for a couple of years, but there was no follow-up. Bill Bartlett thus has a unique claim to fame, having been a “one-hit wonder” twice — first with the Lemon Pipers and “Green Tambourine,” then 10 years later, with Ram Jam and “Black Betty.”

As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”



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