March 30, 2017

From the Vaults: Rickey Medlocke


    There is no reason at all for readers to recognize the name Tom Dowdy.  Resplendent in his rhinestone encrusted shirt, he hosted an eponymously titled TV show in Jacksonville, Florida that featured a lot of the popular bluegrass and country artists of the day.  Roy Rogers even brought along his horse, Trigger.  Though his show ended in 1958, a seed Dowdy planted in 1953 is still bearing musical fruit today.  “How come this article isn’t entitled ‘Tom Dowdy?’” would be a logical question at this point, so stick with me for a bit and I will answer that very question.

    Tom Dowdy’s TV show had a house band that included one Shorty Medlocke.  Shorty played a variety of instruments including five-string banjo, dobro, guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and mandolin.  His position in the Dowdy house band put him on regional TV backing a bevy of legendary music artists.  One day, Shorty mentioned to Dowdy that his three year old grandson Rickey could pick the banjo and sing along with him.  Dowdy more or less said, ‘Shorty, I would have to see it to believe it” so Shorty worked up a song with Rickey, put him in a matching cowboy outfit and trotted him off to the studio.  Needless to say, they proved their point to Dowdy, the audience loved it, and the mail poured in over the next week.  No longer a doubting Thomas, Dowdy had Rickey back on his show . . . for the next five years.  Sixty years later, Rickey Medlocke is still at it and there can’t be that many artists out there who can claim to have a sixty year music career at the age of sixty three.

    Shorty Medlocke did more than just show Rickey his first three banjo chords.  Rickey was born to Shorty’s sixteen year old daughter and Grandpa Shorty and his second wife Ruby were not about to let him end up in an orphanage.  Before he taught him the G, C, and D chords (and offering the suggestion that he could pick up the rest on his own), the Medlockes adopted Rickey and raised him as their own son.  Hanging around Shorty and his musical pals no doubt inspired Rickey’s musical aspirations, but it was his occasional babysitter, May Axton (mother of famed singer, songwriter, and actor Hoyt Axton) who pushed his music button to turbo.

    Axton and her songwriting partner Tommy Durden had arranged a meeting with Elvis Presley and his manager Col. Tom Parker.  In the end,  the Axton/Durden team sold them their tune, Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis made it a hit, and Axton got four tickets to Presley’s Jacksonville show.  Col. Parker also got a writing credit and half the publishing rights to the song, but that is a story for another day.  Axton knew Rickey would like the Elvis show so she gave Shorty three of the tickets.  After watching the future King from center stage, five rows back, little Rickey declared “that is what I want to do” on the ride back home.  Within a year’s time, Shorty’s drummer left the band and he offered the seat to Rickey, a spot he held down for a decade.

    The fertile musical ground in Jacksonville sprouted numerous bands and after his road work with Shorty, Rickey played in a bunch of them.  Upon graduation, he and his buddies put together a band that would eventually be called Fresh Garbage.  The guitar player in Medlocke took to Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and (especially) Eric Clapton, but the first line up of this band had him playing drums and singing.   A personnel shuffle brought in a new drummer,  Jakson Spires, which put Ricky the guitar player/vocalist out front.  They made enough of a name that it was suggested that they take the band to New York to see if they could scare up a recording contract.  On the way north, their name changed to Blackfoot as a nod to Medlocke and his bandmates Native American heritage.

    Moving to New York did not work out for the band so Medlocke called his old friend Alan Collins for some advice.  What he got from Collins was an invitation to take up the newly vacated drum throne of a very young band called Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Medlocke joined just before they booked their first session at the renowned Muscle Shoals studio in June of 1971.  These sessions didn’t produce a Skynyrd album, but they did inspire Rickey to reform Blackfoot.  He departed Skynyrd just before their star began to rise.  The two albums Blackfoot released in 1975 and 1976 (No Reservations and  Flyin’ High) went nowhere and the band was left in neutral.

    During some off time in 1977, Ronnie Van Zant called and asked Medlocke to drop by and hear the latest Skynyrd album Street Survivors.  Van Zant said “If you aren’t busy, why don’t you come along on our next tour leg.  We have a plane,” but Blackfoot had dates to play forcing Medlocke to decline.  They were on stage on October 20, 1977 when a stagehand hollered out to them that Skynyrd had been in a plane crash.  As Medlocke told Classic Rock Magazine:  “Soon as we finished our show, I headed back to our hotel and dialed up my folks.  The phone didn’t even ring once.  Shorty picked it up and I begged him to tell me it wasn’t true.  He said, ‘no son, it is true’ and he told me that Ronnie had been killed in the crash.”    Devastated by the news,  Blackfoot carried on in a fog into the next year but things were not going well.  They finally scored a hit with a Shorty Medlocke penned slide boogie fest Train Train after  Blackfoot signed on with Al Nally to be their manager,   Nally was known for his work with Iggy Pop and Brownsville Station and it under his direction that Blackfoot were finally able to rise above the horde of southern rock bands that were competing for the public’s attention.  He and Medlocke formed a partnership that still exists today.  

    Even in the face of relentless touring, Blackfoot never reached that level of success again.  They kept slinging over the next decade, but internal friction finally broke the original band apart.  Some in the band felt Medlocke had taken over the band completely, including the band’s drummer Jakson Spires.  It was a shock to Medlocke when his brother-in-law/drummer left the band, but he regrouped with a new cast of musicians and tried to keep the band alive.  It was a long hard road and by the mid 1990s, Medlocke was worn down.

    A chance call from Ronnie Van Zant’s widow Judy in 1996 opened a new door for Medlocke.  She invited him to the premier of the Skynyrd movie Freebird in Atlanta in.  The night before the premier, there was an all-star jam at the Fox Theater that sparked a call from Skynyrd’s guitar player, Gary Rossington.  He didn’t have to ask Rickey twice if he wanted to rejoin Skynyrd.   Medlocke began his second chapter with Skynyrd, albeit this time as the guitar player covering the roll previously filled by his old friend, Allan Collins who had also died in the plane crash back in 1977.  As he told Rossington, “I will ride with you until the end.”

    Interestingly enough, Blackfoot is still playing, but without Medlocke in the line up.  A group of Jacksonville musicians approached him about using the Blackfoot name.  He likens his role as the “proud papa of a brand new baby” and as long as he is writing and producing songs for the new unit, the band is still alive.  The new Blackfoot has also returned to its roots as a great southern rock band which is something they had drifted away from during their declining years.

    Shorty Medlocke’s grandson/son has certainly paid him back in spades for teaching him those three banjo chords those many years ago.  I bet they both are glad Tom Dowdy had his doubts back in 1953.

Top Piece Video – The ‘new’ Blackfoot with Rickey Medlocke making an appearance.