by Michael Buffalo Smith
These days Rickey Medlocke is touring the world as one of the “three guitar army” of Lynyrd Skynyrd, blowing the minds of Southern rock audiences from Europe to Clemson, S.C. But before he joined the Skynyrd group, he fronted one of the hardest rocking bands in Southern rock, Blackfoot. We spoke to Rickey about past glories and future goals and the hot new Lyve DVD and CD.
Are you originally from Florida?
Yeah, I was born and raised in Jacksonville and over on the west side. I went to Paxson High School, both junior and senior, and basically was raised there my whole life. My grandparents adopted me. They were my grandparents on my mother’s side and they raised me like their own. I knew quite a bit about my dad and mom, where they came from and who they were and the whole bit. To be honest, I was estranged from my real father. You know, I learned to know my real mother as years went forward because Shorty was actually her dad. But, honestly, I couldn’t have had a better set of people around me and I give my dad and mom credit. They did the best they could with what they had to do with. I couldn’t have done any better because Shorty taught me how to play and taught me the values of music and that is why I really owe him everything. He really was the cat’s ass to me when it came to being a real musician. He lived it, breathed it and loved it. He had some successful times in his life, I guess. I think he would have liked to have gone further in his life. He did some sacrificing for me when he was a kid. I was very sick and had a respiratory problem called bronchiectasis and a lot of people get it confused with bronchitis and now I come to find out it was a generic form of cystic fibrosis, that is what it is. I had a bout of it and was born with it and grew up with it. He tried to do the music thing and make a living at the same time and afford me doctors. I had a major operation at age nine and really what it comes down to is that I have only one lung in my body right now. If it had not been for him and my mom I would have probably been in deep shit. They were great parents and they let me do what I wanted to do.
At what point did you first decide that you wanted to do music as a career?
Well, my dad Shorty was basically a Mississippi Delta blues country player. He was on a television show called The Toby Dowdy Show and it originated right out of Jacksonville out of a radio station called WJXT and used to be called WMBR. It had a lot of different guests on there. What happened was that, as a kid I learned how to pluck around on a banjo when I was like three and my dad got me a miniature and strung it up. I was actually a left-hander so, he strung the banjo up for me and taught me some stuff on it and we would go on the TV show and it was kind of a silly novelty thing. From age 3 to 8 years old I stayed on that show with him. He also did some stints with Roy Acuff's Band touring at one time. Then, he played with Toby and his bands throughout the southeast. Me and my mom used to go on the road with him a little bit and I hung around musicians, basically, really all my life. At the age of five I got interested in playing guitar and started learning how to play the guitar and a couple of guys in his band would play guitar and started teaching me. Actually, my dad taught me three chords, G, C and D. Watching other players and plunking around on the guitar and stuff, I started playing guitar at that time and I played and kept playing. That has always been my main instrument of choice, although I did learn how to play drums, but only out of necessity. I played with my dad’s bands when I was very young and he had a drummer named Charlie Saddlewhite. He helped teach me and was a really cool guy. I used to think he was like Ringo or somebody. I actually took up playing drums in my dad’s bands for quite some time, just as a teenager and going in and out of bands. I got into rock and roll early after seeing Elvis at a baseball park between the ages of 6-7 years old. My parents took me to see him and if mom was alive today she would be the first to tell you that I kept telling her when we left I wanted to be a musician. It stuck with me for my whole life and I didn’t care too much of anything about any other stuff. Playing probably kept me out of trouble and kept me from doing lots of things that wouldn’t have be good for me.
I am still unclear as to when you played for whom in those early days?
Well, Blackfoot had relocated up into New Jersey and what happened was some of those stupid little tiffs that bands get into and we were not really going anywhere. For me, I was just frustrated not going anywhere or doing anything and everything just going awry. I actually called Ronnie up after I had gotten a hold of Allen Collins first and told him that I needed a gig. I told him that I would be able to drive a truck, load equipment or whatever ya’ll need done. Then, Ronnie asked me if I still played drums and I told him, sure I could do that, but in reality I had not sat on drums in a long time. We had a great drummer, Jakson Spires, at the time. So, I opted to go because Bob Burns was leaving and he says that you can come in and do the bill. So, I took off for Jacksonville and got with Lynyrd Skynryd right there in 1971. You know from 1971 until 1973 I opted to leave and do that. I sold my gear and kept my guitars and a few things and hung around this band house we had in Princeton, New Jersey and I kind of brushed up on playing and all that kind of stuff and they sent me a plane ticket down and flew down to rehearse. In Jacksonville that night, I was sitting in rehearsal and working up the material that would later come out not only on the "Pronounced" album, but on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s First and Last. That’s what started it.
Tell me a little bit about what life was like during Lynyrd Skynyrd at that particular time, maybe contrasting with what it is like now.
(Laughs) When you are young and full of piss and vinegar and trying to do something, to be honest with you, I don’t really think that anyone knew at that time what the band was really capable of. It was very raw back then. We had an incredible writer that we were playing with named Ronnie Van Zant. When I first started working with him, he had the most unusual way of writing songs. What we would do is go out to Hell House and we would play those songs over and over again without him even singing. He would just kind of sit in the corner in a chair and keep thinking about writing the lyrics in his head. He never even wrote anything down on paper; it was all in his head. He would just step up to the microphone and start singing. It was incredible. When I look back on it, because we have some good writers now, but with Ronnie it was like genius; it was like an artist painting a picture. He could see it in his head and I think it was gift he was blessed with and is genius. Some of my favorite writers have been Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Seger, Sting and Don Henley, people of that caliber. These are guys that paint the picture and allow you to see it in your head.
Let’s talk a minute about Blackfoot because I think that was one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever. Can you tell me a little bit about how the band was formed and maybe a couple of high points that you recall from the days of the band?
I told some people this before and will always maintain this because a journalist asked me recently what did I consider one of my greatest accomplishments. I told him that the fans had a lot to do with it and the record sales and the traveling and playing shows but , really, to me, probably the greatest accomplishment that I had in my life was being able to share the stage with some of the world’s best and legendary rock musicians. Jakson, Greg, Charlie, Ronnie, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson -- and these are some of the guys that I have had the pleasure of standing with and making music. The Blackfoot years were just incredible; we did something that I don’t think anybody thought we were going to do. To think about those years of struggling and beating our heads against the wall and traveling like we did and the hopes that we had in our heart that we would do something. Those are some of the best years of our lives and nobody can ever take that away from us.
We impressed somebody from a record company.Then we moved up north to get out of the south because there was limited work around where we were. It’s kind of ironic that we were a house band in Gainesville, Florida and Tom Petty had a group called Mud Crutch, which was there in Gainesville and Skynyrd used to go play there. It’s kind of funny because we went to the northeast and Tom went to the west coast and Skynyrd stayed in the south and everyone went to seek their fame and fortune. We hit the big city of New York and stayed in a two-room apartment. It was big with a small bathroom and one small bedroom. It was in the Village and this woman had brought us there; it was her apartment. It is still in the Village because I was there recently and saw it. We were right around the corner from Fillmore East and a block from the Electric Circus. We struggled and starved; we bit the bullet. Then we moved out to New Jersey and that was when I went with Skynyrd. Then I went back with them later. Jakson and Charlie had met a bass player named Lenny Stadler and they were in North Carolina. Jak asked me if I wanted to do it again and I told him absolutely, so I went and joined them. Lenny opted to leave the band because of health problems and he was a born again Christian. So, Greg came back with the band and all of a sudden we were back doing it again.We were up there for years. The Island Records and Epic Records and Atlantic deals all came out of there. Blackfoot, for me, in all sincerity, was a band that was way ahead of its time. We never considered ourselves the typical Southern rock band but were a very heavy band, heavier than what is on record. We used to give people hell opening for them; there was basically no one that could stand up to us. We were fortunate in our life to cop some hits in that time in our life. We had “Train,Train” and “Highway Song” and others that really made a mark and a dent. We were playing arenas and touring overseas and having the time of our life. Then, for whatever reason, it all unraveled. I do know that there has been things in the press said about whose fault it was but, to be honest, it was all of our faults. I don’t think that it was any one person. When you are a band you should have control of it. I have the utmost respect for the guys that played in that band. Great musicians like I told you a few minutes ago. They are very talented. For whatever intents and purposes that it all came down, I do know that the business got in our way. The record business is the most ruthless business that I can even think of; it is funny how some record executives can talk out of both sides of their mouths. The business got in the way. We got caught up in the middle of record company wars and it was ashamed. It took people downhill. There were some hurtful things exchanged between some of us and to me I don’t even want to go back and think of those things. With Blackfoot, we shared some incredible years together and made some incredible music together. We made some incredible music together. Skynyrd had a magic and Blackfoot had a great magic. We were hell bent for leather that we were badasses of the South.
I have an AC/DC bio that has Blackfoot and AC/DC posing together. How did you feel about those fellows?
That was one of the cool things about Blackfoot. We were able to open for some of the heaviest rock bands that came out of Europe. We were the darlings of opening acts at one time. We took pride in that and started headlining our own stuff. The guys from AC/DC I am still friends with today. We struck up a good thing with lots of those guys, Nugent, Foreigner, AC/DC. It is some years that I am very proud of.
Being a friend of Jakson’s and I know Charlie pretty well, too, all three of them have said in the past that they would be open to do a reunion performance. Do think that there is any way that you would do something like that?
I have lots of responsibilities now with Skynyrd and am counted as one of the main guys in this band. In order to do any project that you are going to do, you can’t do 3-4 things at one time and make one certain thing great. I think that you can do two projects at once and make them good, but after it gets beyond that it takes away from both and takes away from the other two or all three. I know that the fans are interested in seeing a reunion between the four of us. I can say that right now I would have to take myself out of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- and there are many people that count on me here -- and immerse myself in Blackfoot. I don’t know that at this time in my life I am able to make that kind of move. We would also have to sit down and lay a lot of stuff out on the table as far as the past goes. I am not saying that I am not willing to do that. I have taken a lot of negative rap from a lot of people. I have never commented about it. Jakson Spires is my brother-in-law and is married to my sister. I will not say anything negative about anyone. Things happen in life that you cannot understand or explain but, you know what, life is too short to sit there and dwell on it. I am not going to dwell on the past. I have nothing but respect for those guys playing and their musicianship. Right now is a very, very up and busy time in my life. I have a lot going on right now and just agreed to do another feature film with Maggie Gyllenhaal and it is one of the lead parts in this film and it looks like I may be considered for a role in Halloween 9. The Skynyrd thing is going on into October. Is Skynyrd taking a break? I really don’t know. They have committed to doing three more CDs for the record company. I am heavy duty involved in the writing process and the recording and being there. I guess only time will tell. We have to wait and see how this whole thing unfolds. I appreciate all the fans. I am 54 years old and one of the main reasons that I love to play is to see the fans come out and have a great time. They can forget the blues for a while. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and sincere efforts to get to me and say that they really want it badly. I will say that if people can think about how they remember Blackfoot standing on that stage and playing -- the one thing that I would never want to do is to tarnish it or make it less than what people remember it being. Four guys that had an incredible magic and incredible team on that stage. I would never want it to be less than what it was. The memories I have of it kick ass. We have a live record that proves that; it was voted the best live record of the decade. For me, that says it all. This is not a thing where I am saying never but there is a lot to be done and considered and then take it from there.
After having seen all these guys play, it seems like everyone could still do it. The thing about it is that if one note was missed somewhere, nobody would care. I know Jakson works a lot and keeps so much going and Charlie as well and Greg -- and then seeing you in Clemson...Lots of my friends feel, as I do, that you are doing great in Skynyrd but you are a front man and we all would like to see you singing in the show. Even to do “Train, Train“ as an encore -- what about that?
I will be quite honest with you. When I got back with Skynryd, I was very beat up. I had been slugging it around in a van and riding around with guys in a truck and, at 46 years old -- and that is not an old guy but the thing about it is when you are sleeping overnights and sleeping in a seat straight up, you wonder what you are doing. When I got the chance to come back with this I took advantage of it. My dad says that you can’t be drive a car until you learn to ride in the back seat. Those words are constantly repeated in my ear all the time. That is why when I took a break from lead singing it gave me a chance to play guitar. I have great confidence in myself but I am not going to come from an egotistical place. I play guitar and think I am good but then I listen to Clapton, Hendrix, Eric Johnson, Van Halen, and then I realize I am not as good as some of the other guys. I am not one of those guys that brags about his playing. I learn constantly from other people still today. The greatest compliment that I have had in the last probably 25 years of my life came from Billy Gibbons. We did that tour with ZZ Top and I used to eat dinner at the crew meal every night with Billy Gibbons and he looked straight across the table at me one night and said, “Hey Rickey, I have got to tell you something. I was just listening to you play, man, you have the butter tone.” I said “Yeah, those old Marshalls are really something.” He said, “Let me tell you why they are the butter tone. It’s because you have the butter spreader in your hand." He said “Your hand is smooth as buttermilk and don’t ever forget it.” He looked at me over those dark sunglasses and said that I was a really great guitar player. It blew me away.
How do you like working with the current lineup of the Skynyrd?
Honestly, this is the best lineup of the band that I have seen. Not because I am in it. This is one of the best versions of this band since the original group. It’s impact is unbelievable. It comes on with a forcefulness that doesn’t let up. We questioned a lot when Leon died and questioned whether we should stay together. The decision lingered and we had to go out and finish what we were doing for that tour. Leon would have wanted that. He gave all his heart and could never say no. Do we miss him now? Absolutely. We have Ean in the band and he is doing a great job for us. He and Leon sat together for a long time and became friends. When he got sick there were times when he just couldn’t go. At least we had someone that had spent time with him and revered him as his hero. Everyone in this band rides down the road together all the time, and in a bus there are always going to be times that we get on each other’s nerves. I know I do with all my hyperactivity. The band does get along fine.
What would you say since you have been in the band this time has been the high point?
One of the biggest high points for me of this besides the ZZ Top tour with this band would have been that I had long wanted to play the Royal Albert Hall. Everybody and anybody who was anything in music had played that place and stood on that stage. That is where Cream did their farewell gig. When you walk down the halls and see who has been there it gives me the chills. I stepped on that stage and couldn’t believe that I was there. It was basically like when I was in Blackfoot and stepping out in Hammersmith Odeon or playing the Monsters of Rock or the very first tour date when we played “Train, Train” and “Highway Song,” everyone came alive and we had no idea at that time we had a hit song.
Probably in Skynyrd the high point of my life was the first gig with them. Since I got back with them the Royal Albert Hall and many other times with them were memorable. I love my role with this band and love getting on the bus and rolling down the highway and being able to get up and play those tunes every night. I love getting in it and taking off and doing it.
It seems like everything with Skynyrd is peaking again. Vicious Cycle was an incredible record and the DVD is exciting and the live one that I just got in yesterday. Tell me your thoughts on the new live album.
I will tell you that the price of it is worth it just for “Tuesday’s Gone.” With the string section on stage and we had Jim Horn who had originally done the horns on all the old stuff and to me it was just an incredible and magical night for the band. I am happy and proud to say that first of all there was a DVD that came out last year that is now gold and then the Lynyrd Skynyrd Thyrty record that came out is certified gold and just short of being platinum right now.
Sum up what’s on the board for you and the band.
The band has just confirmed dates through October 16th. We just confirmed 8-10 shows with us and The Allman Brothers. That will be the first time those two have shared the same stage. That’s in October. We are all playing through October 16th and take a break and start writing new material and start planning another CD. We have dates off and on through the first of the year. As far as me, I could be involved in 2-3 films this year and I have gotten into that lately and really enjoy it. This first one is a dramatic character with Maggie Gyllenhaal called Shall Not Want and another film called Sweet Deadly Dreams that could be coming out before the end of the year. So, there is a lot going on.
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