History Of The Classic Song Black Betty Leadbelly vs Ram Jam

Black Betty Leadbelly

Photo: By The Library of Congress [Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1970s was a time period filled with plenty of bands that hit the big time with one huge hit and then disappeared from the rock and roll charts forever. Many of these one-hit wonder bands delivered songs that became number-one records. Furthermore, some of these songs have become staples of classic rock history. In essence, the songs became bigger than the bands. Many fans, especially younger ones could not even state the names of many of these rock and roll bands responsible for these mega-hit records.

In 1977, the band Ram Jam had the hit of their career with the song “Black Betty.” The song was released on the band’s first album entitled Ram Jam. The song’s writing credit has been attached to the work of Lead Belly. However, the credit to Lead Belly may not be one hundred percent accurate as Lead Belly’s recordings of the song were probably just in essence cover versions of a song that is pretty much untraceable. So many of the classic blues songs from the late 20th and late 19th centuries stem from the tribulations of slavery and the plight of the African workers.

The Ram Jam riff and grooves that Lead Belly sang and played on those old vintage recordings pay tribute to Lead Belly’s importance in musical and social history. The recordings that are attributed to Lead Belly also signify the impact artists like Lead Belly had on future rock stars such as The Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, and so many others. Ram Jam’s recording of the song “Black Betty,” is one example out of hundreds of modern rock acts turning old blues songs and riffs into classic rock signature songs.

The earliest recordings of the song “Black Betty,” are acapella versions. The early versions of “Black Betty,” were recorded by musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933. The acapella version below is a recording of prisoners in the State of Texas led by James “Iron Head” Baker and Moses “Clear Rock” Platt.

John and Alan Lomax were instrumental in helping Lead Belly sign his first recording contract which resulted in Lead Belly’s recording of the “Black Betty,” chant. Lead Belly was the first musician to add the guitar licks in subsequent recordings of the song. It’s Lead Belly’s arrangement of the song and his guitar work that seems to have become the reason that his name is listed as the composer of the song on all recorded and sheet music versions of “Black Betty.”

Lead Belly’s Black Betty

Manfred Mann

In 1968, Manfred Mann recorded a version of “Black Betty,” which was named “Big Betty.” The song was released on the band’s Mighty Garvey album. Manfred Mann’s version is a groove-based arrangement that sounds nothing like any other version of the song. The famous riff that Ram Jam recorded is not present in Manfred Mann’s version simply because Manfred Mann released “Big Betty,” almost ten years before Ram Jam’s version.

In 1975, a group called The Starstruck Band released a single recording of “Black Betty.” The band featured Bill Bartlett, David Fleeman, David Goldflies, and Tom Kurtz. The Starstruck band version of Black Betty was the predecessor to Ram Jam’s version. In actuality, it is the same version but it was heavily edited by record producers and utilized. Ram Jam was, in essence, a band of musicians formed around Bill Bartlett who had left the Starstruck Band.

Starstruck’s version of Black Betty 1975

Ram Jam’s recording of the song “Black Betty featured, Bill Bartlett on guitar, and vocals, Myke Scavone on vocals Howie Blauvelt on bass, and Peter Charles on drums.

The Ram Jam version of “Black Betty,” reached the number 18 spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1977. It was even more successful in the UK as it peaked at number 8. The Ram Jam version has become the definitive version in classic rock history. It is the version that has been utilized in film, television, and every classic rock compilation that has been released over the past thirty-five years.

It’s one of those songs that has always been hard to classify what genre of rock music it falls into. There is a southern feel to the guitar solo and even the riff has a sort of Lynyrd Skynyrd groove to it. The song also defines some of the styles of bands like  Mountain and Bad Company. Regardless of genre, it stands as one of the most famous rock songs of the decade of the 1970s.

Ram Jam’s Black Betty

The song “Black Betty,” has become one of the most covered songs in rock history. It’s unusual that a song with such a distinctive sound based on the Ram Jam version would continue to be covered. Here are some of our favorite versions outside of the Ram Jam version

Tom Jones Black Betty

Meat Loaf – Black Betty

Since we are such huge Meat Loaf fans here, we could not ignore Meat Loaf’s cover of the song which was released as the b-side to “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.”

 

Spiderbait Black Betty

A great cover version of “Black Betty,” by the band Spiderbait. This one was released in 2004.

 

Sheryl Crow Black Betty

Sheryl Crow grew up in the 1970s. This music is in her blood.

 

Ministry – Black Betty

Ministry does to Ram Jam’s version of “Black Betty,” what Ram Jam did to Lead Bellys’. A completely reworked version.

Best Cover Versions of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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