The Spirit of Southern Rock Takes Flight Once Again
Our exclusive interview with bassist Greg T Walker
by Todd K Smith
To say that Blackfoot were contemporaries of Lynyrd Skynrd is a slight misnomer. The two bands were as incestuous as a Kentucky pig farmer. Both bands were from Jacksonville, Florida. Both grew up in the same neighborhood, were around the same age and started their respective bands in 1969. Both Greg Walker and Rickey Medlocke played in Skynyrd, the latter of which is now an official member. Blackfoot would have their day in the sun. Oddly it happened on British soil. It was the 22nd Reading Rock Festival in late August 1982. Bill toppers Budgie, Iron Maiden and MSG each went down a storm but the talk of the 3-day, 30-band event was Florida’s own Blackfoot. Kerrang! magazine called their performance “simply the best of the entire week” also stating “they are the perfect festival band playing good time Southern rock’n’roll that lifts the spirits.” They declared Rickey Medlocke “Master of Ceremonies” and published a picture of the guitarist silhouetted against the crowd with a sea of confederate flags waving in the audience.
Known for an impressive list of classic hits including “Rattlesnake Rock & Roller”, “On the Run”, “Rollin’ & Tumblin’, “Train Train” and “Highway Song,” Blackfoot amassed a sobering 5 gold records in the ten years they were together. Internal conflicts led to the band splitting in 1985 and for nearly twenty years they remained apart while their legacy grew. After a settled court case in 2004 the band began performing again with three of the original members including Greg T Walker, Jakson Spires and Charlie Hargrett. A fifth member of the band, Bobby Barth (formerly of Axe) who had lived with and written with the band from 1983-84, stepped into to replace Medlocke. Sadly, after only six shows together Spires died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. His current replacement is Scott Craig. Curious as to how this current lineup faired, I opted to check them out live at the Jackson Rancheria Casino south of Sacramento, CA.
“We were Southern Rock before the term was even coined,” say bassist Greg T Walker in our conversation before the show. “We’ve always seen ourselves as just a straight up rock band, it was someone else that called what we and the other Florida bands do Southern Rock.” Walker remembers putting together the rhythm section with best friend and drummer Jakson “Thunderfoot” Spires when the two were just ten years old. Singer/guitarist Rickey Medlocke, grandson to bluegrass musician Shorty Medlocke, joined within weeks and the trio went around playing dances and Youth Centers as the Rockin’ Aces. Spires eventually talked the band into bringing on a gangly 6’6” guitar player name Charlie Hargrett to round out the sound and give the band a twin guitar attack. After high school the band entered a local band contest held down in Gainesville, Fl, The One Percent (later to change their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd) were there and so were The Allman Brothers. “We did the Zombies’ ‘Tell Her What You Know’,” says Walker. “And a couple Uriah Heep songs with four part harmonies.”
They didn’t win but got the buzz going and were soon driving up and down the I-95 corridor playing every skating rink, hay wagon and dirt floor dive they could. “We moved up to New Jersey,” recalls Walker. “We set up shop and worked from there playing every where in the tri-State area.” The band called themselves Hammer ‘til they found out a West Coast band had the same name. “Then we switched to Free, the same week we heard ‘All Right Now’ on the radio. We decided we wanted something to do with Jakson's and my native heritage so we settled on Blackfoot.” The band never lost touch with Skynyrd often running into them on the road. One day the phone rang and it was Ronnie Van Zant looking for Jakson. Rickey took the call and told Ronnie, he played drums. A week later he was in Florida with Skynyrd.
Six months later Medlocke called Walker and said that Skynyrd needed a bass player. "They were about to go into the first recording sessions in Muscle Shoals,” says Greg. “So I joined and we began to record and play some live shows. There are some songs on Skynyrd’s first albums that are basically Blackfoot songs written by Jakson, Rickey and myself but we never got credit for them.” Walker’s heart wasn’t into recording someone else’s songs so he returned to Jersey and put Blackfoot back together. It was 1974. “I always thought we were the better band anyway,” says Walker. “We eventually got a shot with Island Records. Chris Blackwell listened to us and signed us for one album with an option to pick up a second. To this day that record, No Reservations (1975), is my favorite album, especially the track “Big Wheels”. We’d played those song 100 times so when we finally got to record them at Muscle Shoals they were very well rehearsed!”
The record sold in local areas but found little-to-no mass appeal, so Island didn’t pick up a second option. However, Epic was eager to put out the band’s next offering Flyin’ High (1976). “We toured with everybody like Peter Frampton (Comes Alive tour), ZZ Top, Kiss and Aerosmith. We spent the next three years playing shows and working up new songs. When we finally got back to the studio we had enough really great songs to record our third album Strikes (1979) on Atco.” By now the band had become known as a no-holds-barred rock and roll outfit. If they were still considered Southern rock they were easily the hardest with songs like “Road Fever” and “Train Train”. They’d even learned a thing or two about big hooks in “Left Turn On A Red Light” and “Run and Hide” but it was the seven-minute extended jam of “Highway Song” that would become the band’s biggest hit.
1980’s Tomcattin’ and the 1981 Marauder continued the band’s success with crowd pleasers “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” and “Rattlesnake Rock and Roller”. It was at the tail end of the ‘Marauder’ tour that the band toured England and conquered the Reading festival. The live Highway Song (1982) captured their primal energy at its most ravenous point. Then history came back around when they recruited the use of Uriah Heep keyboardist Ken Hensley for the more commercial Siogo (1983) and Vertical Smiles (1984). Axe vocalist /guitarist and Bobby Barth participated in the songwriting on both albums while recovering from his near-fatal car accident. Says Walker, “Ken quit on us towards the end of the ‘Vertical Smiles’ tour and I have never forgiven him for that. He just left and we never knew why. We picked up Bobby Barth and continued touring. We were slipping by then and one night Rickey decided to end the band. I don’t know why but we all agreed. Next thing we know Rickey’s back out on the road with a whole new band and calling it Rick Medlocke & Blackfoot. That wrecked us.”
In 1996 Rickey Medlocke rejoined Lynyrd Skynyrd.
After years of playing in separate bands, working on independent projects and fielding offers to play as Blackfoot once again, the band decided to settle their differences in 2004. “We were so excited to be back out under our proper name,” says Walker. “But just a few dates into it Jakson passed away. It was heartbreaking. I sat next to him in the hospital for three days. The morning of the third day, I held his hand and whispered, “Let go my friend, we all love you…fly away home.” It took the band several months to regroup but eventually they started touring again. “The reaction has been unbelievable,” says Walker. “From the first time we went out, the fans have supported us. They have embraced Bobby as our new singer and often come up to him after the show and thank him.” Blackfoot not only play their proven classics in the live set but several new numbers including the native American rocker “Great Spirit” and “Born To Lose”.
If the crowd reaction at the Jackson Casino is any indication of the general public appeal for the band - Blackoot will be around for quite some time. Whipping the crowd into a frenzy with set mainstays commanded applause time and again. The acoustics in the elegant mountain lodge accommodated both the double-barreled guitar of Barth and Hargrett as well as the more subtle instrumental passages. Mid-set Barth amazed the crowd with an emotional slide rendition of “American Trilogy” leading into “Baby Blue”. Walker, dressed in Native attire, led the charge with his throbbing bass lines and wizard-like fret dance. Native drum beats breathed fire into songs “Good Morning”, “Left Turn on the Red Light” and Walker’s newly penned “Great Spirit” also featuring his vocals. Tribute song “Sunshine Again” paid homage to Spires, as did a rousing version of “Highway Song” that laid waste to all non-believers. The encore “Train Train” had the crowd singing at the top of their lungs long after the band left the stage.
Added note: Walker’s solo disc “Warrior Pride” has sold out but should be available again by this summer (2009). Blackfoot announced several times from the stage they plan to have a new record out in the near future. Special thanks to Greg Walker for his kindness and inspiration as well as the Jackson Casino for their wonderful accommodations.
Website: Blackfoot, Jackson Casino