OK, ‘fess up — as soon as you saw the title for this entry you started singing, “Whoa Black Betty, bam-a-lam!” just like I do any time I see the name Ram Jam. No shame there, as it’s an absolutely smokin’ track and was every bit deserving of its Top 20 U.S. Hot 100 chart position in 1977 (it hit #7 in the U.K.).
If Ram Jam offered nothing else to the world, their Southern boogie rock reworking of the venerable Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter work song would be a fine legacy. The curious thing about that legacy is that the band didn’t even play on the song. How’s that? Well, you have to go back to the height of the Psychedelic Era for the beginning of that story.
In 1968, a group out of Ohio called the Lemon Pipers scored a #1 hit with “Green Tambourine,” a song that has since become one of the defining tracks of the Psychedelic ’60s. The guitarist for the Lemon Pipers was Bill Bartlett, who later formed a band called Starstruck after the Pipers fell apart in ’69. One of the songs Bartlett’s Cincinnati-based group released was his hard rock arrangement of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.”
Starstruck’s cover became a regional hit in the Midwest and attracted the attention of famed bubblegum pop producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz (formerly of Buddah Records, the Lemon Pipers’ label), who invited Bartlett to New York to audition for a new rock band they were putting together.
That band (also including drummer Pete Charles, vocalist Myke Scavone, and bassist Howie Arthur Blauvelt) became Ram Jam and their self-titled Epic Records debut kicked off with an edited version of Starstruck’s recording of “Black Betty.” This truncated song became the hit we know today, and carried the Ram Jam album to #34 on the Billboard 200 in 1977. The group didn’t release any other charting singles, and a 1978 follow-up LP (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ram) flopped. The two records have since been combined and released as The Very Best of Ram Jam.
So how does the rest of Ram Jam hold up? Not very well I’m afraid. Whoever made the decision to start the record with “Black Betty” knew what they were doing, because the other nine tracks range from generic blooz with a slight Southern rock feel to outright imitations of contemporaries like the Rolling Stones, T. Rex, and the Allman Brothers Band.
The first problem is that it’s clear “Black Betty” did not emerge from the same sessions as the rest of the album. Not only is it played with more skill — there is nothing on the rest of the album that approaches the balls-out musicality of the “Black Betty’s” bridge — but it just sounds better. The production on the actual Ram Jam-performed songs is slightly claustrophobic, and lacks any real low-end dynamics.
While there are no real stinkers to be heard in the other nine songs, there are no real gems either. Bartlett is clearly a capable guitar player, but there is zero chemistry with the rest of his producer-assembled group and they generally rise no higher than the level of a very good bar band.
The second song on Ram Jam, “Let It All Out,” keeps the momentum going somewhat but from there it’s one paint-by-numbers track after another. “Keep Your Hands on the Wheel” is second-rate Stones (circa the early ’70s), while “Right on the Money” is a solid but unremarkable tune that sounds like a Mountain castoff. It also features typically banal lyrics like, “I ain’t rich / I got no fancy car / but I got your lovin’ and my guitar / that’s all I need.” Ugh.
Elsewhere, Ram Jam features songs about how awesome rock and roll is (“All for the Love of Rock ‘n Roll”) and how awesome fast cars are (the surprisingly gritty and grinding “404″). There’s one instrumental — “High Steppin’” — that is probably one of the better songs here, even though it’s clearly indebted to the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Capping off the record is glam rock of “Too Bad on Your Birthday,” which throws a curveball in that instead of poorly aping better blues rock bands it poorly apes T. Rex. Listen to the intro and tell me it isn’t a total rip of “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”
You could probably throw Ram Jam on at a keg party and not get beer poured on you, but I recommend waiting until everyone is good and plastered first. Or even better, stick with “Black Betty” and join in when everyone else sings along.