It was in the early seventies when we used to hang out at Phillips Recording Service on Madison when Jim Dickinson told me the secret to prominence in music. "The best way to make it in the music business," he said, "is to start a good rumor about yourself." That's why I took such delight in watching him work his theory and create the "East Memphis Slim" persona he continued to develop. He became the authentic, white boy with the blues, possessing a sardonic sense of humor and the willingness to step out on a limb for his art. Yet, he still had the intellectual honesty to once tell an interviewer, "We all learned it from the yard man." However, sometime after his work with various Memphis bands and his stint as house keyboardist for Atlantic Records at Criteria Studios in Miami, Jim's ever-expanding credits as a producer became so impressive, and his expertise and keen ear so desired by a new generation of musicians, that the reality simply overran the rumor.
Dickinson based his "good rumor" theory on Mac Rebennack, a New Orleans keyboardist he greatly admired, who labored for years in anonymity before creating the Voodoo High Priest, Dr. John the Night Tripper, and then rocketed to recording stardom. Jim turned me on to that particular record in 1967, and when the opening notes of the title track began, Dickinson said excitedly, "Listen to that. That's a cane flute," displaying his fondness for esoteric instruments. That was the year I worked with him on our single recording project at the old Ardent Studio in John Fry's garage on National. Before Led Zeppelin, before Cream, even before Moloch, Dickinson had the idea to record some white-boy, electric blues to stand in contrast with the usual pop fare of the day. He recruited Sam the Sham's drummer, Jerry Patterson, Fred Hester played stand-up bass, Lee Baker played lead, and Dickinson produced and played piano. Even though I was away at college and had been absent from the Memphis scene for a year, I was honored that Jim chose me to sing. I was afraid that, even after a short time away, I would have been forgotten, but Dickinson didn't forget me. That was one of those sessions that was deferred then abandoned for one reason or another. I bugged Jim about it for a year or so, but recording tape was then too expensive to save something that you weren't going to use.
Because of Dickinson's session work in the sixties, he finally crossed paths with Sam Phillips and took his words; "If you're not doing something different, then you're not doing anything," to heart. As a record producer, Jim became the true disciple of Phillips, both in his approach to recording, and the talent he chose to work with. Someone more capable than I can surely enumerate the records he produced and the influence they had on their audiences, but Dickinson, always prepared with a quote, wisely said, "The best songs don't get recorded; the best recordings don't get released; and the best releases don't get played." For his own production career, Jim adopted the "crazy is often good," credo of Sam Phillips. Dickinson's keyboard and vocal work for Sun with sixties garage band, the Jesters, has just been released internationally by Ace/Big Beat Records. The same company is also in the process of assembling a box set by Memphis legends, Big Star, who benefited from Jim's production.
I'm dating myself, but it seems like yesterday when Jim and Mary Lindsay Dickinson lived over off of White Station Road, and entertained a group of Bohemians, hipsters, bluesmen, musicians, and magicians in their living room nightly, and those now famous young men were still little boys. There was very little recording going on in Memphis once the famous labels closed, but the camaraderie among artists was such that it's strange how some of your fondest memories arise from times when you believed you were suffering the most. Though our mutual recording attempt was in the past, I valued Jim's opinion so much that, like a big brother, I still sought his approval for whatever I was doing musically. The whole truth be told, I never much cared for Mudboy and the Neutrons because I disagreed with Dickinson's philosophy that the less rehearsal the better. Actually, I believe there was a whole Andy Kaufmanesque quality to Mudboy, and those who said they sat down and actually enjoyed them were missing the point. Still, anyone like Jim who wears a wrestling mask on stage automatically commands my respect.
Dickinson was a man who would always tell you what he thought and not one to hand out compliments idly. That's why receiving one from him meant so much. I participated in a garage band reunion a couple of years ago, mainly because of my admiration for Larry Raspberry, who also recruited Dickinson to play in an assemblage of Gentrys. I did some shtick that was a throwback to the old soul revues when the singer would chime, "I once heard a friend of mine say," and then sing snippets of various artists' songs. On the changeover, I was walking offstage and Jim was stepping up when he said, "Hey man, that was great." Those few words were sufficient to make my night. Some time later, I got a call from David Less, whose label releases Dickinson's albums. Jim wanted to know if I'd be interested in coming down to Mississippi and singing some backup on his latest solo effort. I sang harmony vocals on one song and when I was done, Jim wrote me a check. "What's this?" I asked. "You're actually going to pay me?" Dickinson just laughed and said, "That's the way we do it these days." I reminded him of our 1967 recordings and told him how pleased I was that it only took him forty years to call me back. But I really would have done it for free.
I can see by the way the North Mississippi Allstars have conducted their careers thus far, that their parents have taught them well. Aside from his extraordinary talent, the other quality Jim Dickinson had in abundance was integrity. He leaves a void in the vanguard of contemporary music production that is impossible to fill. Even after I heard he was in ill health and had bypass surgery, I just assumed if anyone could kick a heart attack's ass, it would be Dickinson. The man just had an air of invincibility about him, and he seemed only in the middle of a saga that had so much more to go. His "East Memphis Slim" creation had come full circle and he was gaining the respect he desired as a producer with every passing day. It was as if he was almost where he wanted to be. Not quite, but almost. A whole generation now, raised on the fifties music played by Dewey Phillips and Rufus Thomas, and with an appreciation for the absurd and the eccentric, is beginning to fade from view. Jim has already achieved legendary status with a generation of musicians inspired by his adventurous productions. For many more that knew him well, or those that only knew him by reputation, the loss of James Luther Dickinson is like losing a part of Memphis itself.