A Look Into the Man Behind Black Betty
By TARA WARD
It is Thursday night at Three Trees Pub in Oxford, Ohio. Bill Bartlett is wearing the same faded blue jeans, the same denim shirt, and pounding out the same boogie-woogie tunes on the electric piano as he does every Thursday night. Yet, unlike the glass of Merlot that is always on top of the piano he plays, for the past 60 years Bartlett's life has been anything but monotonous.
Bartlett ended up in Oxford after a long life of almost-famous attempts at stardom. After living in two countries, attending two colleges, joining six different bands, recording several albums, and surviving the drugs, sex and rock' n' roll environment, Bartlett is entirely content with his rather quiet life in the countryside.
Bartlett's house resembles a large wooden cabin and sits a mile back from the road. A small creek runs through his back yard, surrounded by dozens of tall pine trees. He is standing on his front deck, wearing the same faded blue jeans, with a half-smile upon his face.
"Come on in!" Bartlett says, as he waves his arm toward the house. The inside of his house is antique and rustic. Bill Bailey, Bartlett's inspiration for boogie-woogie piano style, is playing loudly on the radio. Old photographs of Bartlett playing the guitar and piano cover the walls. He pours a glass of Merlot for himself and lights a cigarette.
"I was born in Dayton, but my favorite time was living in England when I was a kid," said Bartlett. "That's how I got into all those British trains."
Bartlett stands up and moves into another room. He opens the door and smiles proudly. More than 500 miniature, hand-painted trains line a track that Bartlett built. The elaborate train set consumes nearly the entire room. Bartlett walks around the room explaining each set of trains - everything from the 1950 Virginian Caboose to the 1914 English Track.
Bartlett and his three siblings spent most of their childhood moving from place to place because their father was in the Air Force. However, Bartlett has his fondest memories from his time spent living in England. That is when he learned about trains and that playing guitar would make his 11-year-old neighbor, Wendy Evans, like him.
"It was then that the trains and the boogie-woogie all came together," said Bartlett, with a large grin on his face.
Bartlett later moved to Boston where he graduated high school. He began college at Syracuse University as a chemical engineering major. All the while, Bartlett was mastering the guitar by teaching himself. Late at night in his dorm room, he would listen to Pete Johnson and Bill Crosby on his small record player and attempt to emulate their styles.
In his junior year, he received a call from a friend, Chuck Patura. Patura invited Bartlett to come to Miami University, join his band and forget about chemical engineering. Bartlett agreed. He moved to Oxford, started playing guitar in a band called the Lemon Pipers and changed his major to fine arts.
"I really started school to avoid the draft, all that Vietnam talk," said Bartlett. "You see, moving to Oxford, changing schools and majors, all that confused the draft, which is exactly what I wanted to do," said Bartlett.
Bartlett's quasi-famous stardom began when he began playing the Oxford local bar scene. The Lemon Pipers began playing all the local bars of Oxford. Bartlett began writing most of the songs for the band. After only one year of playing the local bars, the Lemon Pipers began selling tickets to their shows.
"Oxford wasn't anything like it is today," said Bartlett. "Kids really let loose back then. And the drugs, well, let's just say they were everywhere."
However, the fame of the Lemon Pipers was short-lived. Patura joined Dickie Betts and the Allman Brothers. The other band members went on marry and later have children. Bartlett was left to find another band.
He found Star Struck. Star Struck was also playing in the bars of Oxford, but its sound was more refined and the band members had more experience.
In 1972, Bartlett heard the folk trio Kerner, Ray and Glover. He liked their song "Black Betty" but thought there wasn't enough to it. In addition to the vocals and handclap, Bartlett began adding guitar riffs. He began working on his version of the song with band members.
"'Black Betty' went through many, many combinations of changes until it got edited to the final version you hear on the radio nowadays," said Bartlett.
"Black Betty" became a fan favorite. Star Struck could not play a show without fans shouting, "Play Black Betty!" Truck Star Records picked up the song playing on the radio. In only a short time, a music producer from New York was calling Bartlett, but not Star Struck. Epic Records wanted only Bartlett to sing its version of "Black Betty." Bartlett agreed and that was the end of Star Struck.
"Epic Records pretty much created the version you hear now, and it took off like hot cakes," said Bartlett.
Bartlett acknowledges that "Black Betty" was his 15 minutes of fame.
"I could never come up with anything as good because it was a labor of love for the guys I was playing with here," said Bartlett.
Bartlett receives royalties from the song "Black Betty," including those from a version of the song in the movie "Blow" starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.
The latter part of the 70s Bartlett spent playing with different bands in different states. Bartlett once appeared on television in California after winning a local music contest.
"My greatest memory of my early years playing at Miami [bars] was meeting my wife, Dedee," said Bartlett. "She stuck by my side through the years, the partying and the constant traveling."
Bartlett was married to Dedee for 37 years. They had no children because of Bartlett's music career and traveling. Dedee died of cancer in 1999. Bartlett still leaves her watch, jewelry and make-up on her dresser.
"She fought long and hard," said Bartlett. "It is hard to watch your better one-and-a-half leave you."
Bartlett finally settled down at his country home in 1980, where he remains semi- retired. Most of the early 90s were spent with his wife in the seclusion of their home. Bartlett worked on his train set, while Dedee spent time working in the garden .
Bartlett began playing piano at Three Trees Pub in July 2002. He agreed to play to keep his mind off the death of his wife.
Nearly the same crowd gathers every Thursday to watch Bartlett.
"I absolutely love Bill," said Miami senior Ben Shone. "I started coming here just to watch Bill play and shoot the breeze with him during set break."
Read a story by Tara about Oxford musician John Kogge