The 1970 debut album by Cactus blasted off with a gnarly guitar riff for the ages, as the band’s rendition of “Parchman Farm” out-rocked any and all transformations of jazz composer Mose Allison – yes, even the Who’s “Young Man Blues.” Before “shred” became a term, the barrage from Jim McCarty’s Les Paul threw down for all comers.
Cactus leads off the eight-CD Evil Is Going On: The Atco Albums, 1970-1972 box, which also includes studio albums One Way… Or Another, Restrictions, and ’Ot ’N’ Sweaty, as well as two double-CD volumes of Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs. The order of the day was reworking the repertoires of Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, power ballads, and plenty of blues-laced guitar licks.
The supergroup consisted of drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Tim Bogert (the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge), singer/harpist Rusty Day, and McCarty, a veteran of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and the Buddy Mi
“When Jeff Beck came out with the Truth album and Beck-Ola, it just blew me out the door,” McCarty told me from his home near Detroit. “That’s the direction I wanted to go. That’s why I left Buddy Miles. Pretty much at precisely the same time, Tim and Carmine were tired of Vanilla Fudge and wanted to put together a power trio. Led Zeppelin had just come over from England, opening for the Fudge, blowing them off the stage. They got Rusty, a Detroit guy from Amboy Dukes, on vocals. Initially they were talking about doing something with Jeff. But he got in a serious car accident, so I became the guitar player. I flew to New York and we started jamming, and the energy level was just off the charts.”
The result was more Zeppelin than Beck.
“Zeppelin was an entirely different thing than the Jeff Beck Group, and Jimmy Page was a brilliant engineer in addition to being a guitar player. Jeff’s album didn’t have the [same] sonic quality. For me, Zeppelin was the greatest of all hard-rock bands. Not only could they kick ass, they also had the acoustic side covered. Jimmy was simply brilliant.”
Blues and jazz make up McCarty’s biggest influences; “If I had to pick one, B.B. King was the man,” he says. “But all the Kings – Freddie and Albert, too. And it might sound ironic, but the music I listen to most at home is jazz. That’s what I grew up with, like all the Blue Note stuff. Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green are the big three. The hard-bop stuff.”
When I query about a resemblance between the “Parchman Farm” lick and an instrumental workout by another former Yardbird, McCarty laughs, “Except tempo-wise. There was a compilation called What’s Shakin’, and it had ‘Steppin’ Out’ by Eric Clapton & the Powerhouse. That really made me sit up and take notice. I talked to Mike Bloomfield when he got back from England in ’66, and he said, ‘There’s a guy over there’ – which is why he put down the Telecaster and went to a Les Paul. Then on that Blues Breakers album, Eric’s playing through a 50-watt Marshall. That tone – what can you say?”
In Evil’s liner notes, Appice admits he had no blues background.
“Tim and Carmine weren’t blues guys at all,” McCarty agrees. “That’s one of the reasons I eventually left the band. I love playing with Carmine, and to this day I miss that. The guy is brilliant. But Timmy would get a little too flamboyant for me. There wasn’t enough bottom-end going on, or blues feel. I wasn’t happy with what was going on with the bass. On nights when he’d actually listen and play with you, he was a hell of a bass player. But there were too many nights when he was off doing his own thing. You had three guys playing their ass off, but they’re all in separate rooms. If you’re not playing in the band, what’s the point?”
Sweaty is the only disc in the collection that doesn’t feature McCarty, in what he calls “Grade B Cactus,” after he left. Following a gap of 34 years, they reunited in 2006 for Cactus V (not in the box), with Jimmy Kunes replacing Day, who was murdered in 1982.
Also not falling into the time frame of Evil is Black Dawn, the last McCarty-involved CD from 2016. “I produced that. From an audio point of view, that’s the best-sounding CD.”
So, if eight Cactus CDs aren’t enough for you, also get a copy of Black Dawn, and crank it up.
© 2022 Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author. Jim McCarty is interviewed in this month’s “First Fret.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.