Rickey Medlocke: The story of Southern rock's brightest star
Playing in both Blackfoot and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rickey Medlocke is the very definition of a southern rocker. He looks back on an eventful life filled with triumphs and tragedies
On an otherwise indistinct evening in 1953, viewers tuning in to their local TV station in Jacksonville, Florida were treated to the rare sight of a cherubic three-year-old boy playing the banjo like an old timer. During any given week, the Toby Dowdy Show served up to Florida residents a wholesome diet of down-home light entertainment, presided over by the titular host, a genial-looking fellow in a rhinestone shirt. A musician himself, Dowdy welcomed onto the air the popular country and bluegrass players of the day: guys such as Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy who brought along his horse Trigger, and Tex Galloway and Shorty Medlocke. A fixture in Dowdy’s house band, the grizzled Medlocke had a particular interest in how the kid with the banjo went over that night, since he was little Rickey Medlocke’s granddaddy and had encouraged the lad to play.
“Shorty got to play with all of the legendary Nashville cats of the time,” Rickey Medlocke recalls today from his waterfront home in Fort Myers, Florida. “He played a lot of different instruments – five-string banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, harmonica and mandolin. Not only that, he was also able to play them incredibly well. He taught me three chords – G, C and D – and then told me to learn the rest on my own. I guess he knew that growing up around all the musicians in his band I would grasp it pretty quick.
“One day Shorty was telling Toby Dowdy how well I picked banjo and would sing along with him. Soon as Toby heard of my age, he shot back: ‘Well, I find that pretty incredible to believe and need to see it for myself.’ Shorty worked up a song with me for the show, and I got to don a little cowboy outfit just like his for the broadcast. And hell, all the week after, mail just poured into the station. Toby had me back for the next five years until his show went off air.”
For Rickey Medlocke, that first public appearance began an odyssey through music that has been running for 63 years now. Twice he has been a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the greatest band to have emerged from the Florida wetlands. He also led his own much-loved group, Blackfoot. Along the way he’s enjoyed platinum-selling records and adoring audiences, and experienced his share of loss, rancour and despair. Today, his arms a tapestry of tattoos, his hair long and now the purest white, he still looks every inch the rock’n’roller. His voice, though, a rasping husk, betrays the wear, tear and scars of all those hard miles travelled.
“Thinking back makes me feel more like I’m ninety-six years old,” he says, laughing. “But I’ve sure enough had an incredible life. And I have been blessed to stand on stage next to some of the world’s greatest musicians. You know, it just don’t get no better than that.”
Rickey Medlocke’s mother had just turned 16 when she gave birth to him. His biological father, a Native American by blood, didn’t hang around to bring the boy up, and the child would have been given over to the orphanage had his maternal grandfather not intervened. Shorty, who was of Scots-Irish descent, and his second wife, Ruby, legally adopted Rickey and raised him as their own.
He was a precocious kid and, as a result of his grandfather’s influence, enthralled by music and musicians from just as soon as anyone could remember. Yet it wasn’t his appearances on TV that sealed the deal of his future life, but an encounter he had three years later. On occasion, Rickey would be babysat by a friend of his grandparents, a bubbly blonde Texan lady named Mae Axton, who also happened to be a prolific songwriter. It was on account of one of these tunes, co-written with local steel guitarist Tommy Durden, that Mae managed to have a meeting with the new swivel-hipped singing sensation of the south, Elvis Presley, when he came to town during the sweltering August of 1956.
Axton and Durden got to play their song for Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Both were impressed, but the indomitable Parker drove a hard bargain. Elvis, he said, would record the song, but only in return for a writing credit and half of the publishing. Axton and Durden agreed. Which is how Elvis secured his breakthrough hit, Heartbreak Hotel. As a gesture of gratitude, Parker handed the visitors two pairs of tickets for Elvis’s matinee show at the Jacksonville Theatre that evening, August 10.