Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on Jim Dickinson

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.

35 comments:

Jay said...

Randy, what a marvelous eulogy! Thank you.

Bob said...

Randy,
I think Charlie Rich started white man's blues in the late 50s. He had a cotton fields, honky tonk piano flavor that I still very much dig today. I am sure Jim was a legend and a great honor to play with. He seems to have been a great pioneer and a wonderful man.
I miss Charlie and his music: Midnight Blues, Lonely Weekends, There's Another Place That I Can'T Go, Just a Little Bit Sweet, Big Boss Man. I know he later became a CW star but in the beginning, I think he was white blues. He played at Tommy Ferguson's little spot downtown and different honky tonks (aka Booze Dives) around the mid-south. Hernando's Hideaway was another. My dad used to frequent those spots and I have many memories of music from the late 50's early 60s. Especially, "don't know why, there's no sun up in the sky, stormy weather.......T Burke and the Counts...great stuff.
Randy, keep up your music history and sharing it with us. I love it.
Your friend and classmate forever,
Bobby Weymouth
CBHS '65

Craig Fuller said...

RJ,

As ever, thanks for the memories!

I know people sometimes think we're exaggerating but we know there's just no way to exaggerate that time in the South.

Stay cool...

rockskipper said...

Even more, than what Randy described -- he was my F-R-I-E-N-D!
It hurts to think about how much I'm (we all will) gonna miss him.
Since 1968, Jim & me were friends. He even gave me label credits, on the back of his first album. My name appears between the names of Ecic Clapton, & Charlie Brown! I was amazed when he did that -- a really 'stand up' guy! Just another reason, why we remained friends, all these years, 'cause justlike Randy points out (and I couldn't agree more), Jim had 'integrity' -- a rare quality these daze. Jim was strictly, as Randy states, intellectually honest.
I loved him and I will never forget him! Long live his MUSIC!!!

Billy Wicks said...

ENJOYED, THANKS RANDY

Father Farken said...

Randy! You just wrote a masterpiece of an eulogy. Jim Dickinson wuz quite the character! Like Carl Perkins "He was Dixie-fried!" A few years ago he put out an album with the Green Beetle(Memphis Dive on Main!)logo on front...FREE BEER TOMORROW! He was as playful & rowdy as the great Fats Waller. In his most Walleresque song he tells his lady that dumped him the damnedest thing...that she is an "Ass Hole...anybody downtown will tell you datz so!" The last thing I heard from Jim was just a few weeks ago...A CHICKEN AIN'T NOTHING BUT A BIRD! I laughed me arse off!
Randy! At a time we remember the great Elvis Presley thanks for taking the time to stir the Memphis Stew by remembering Jim Dickinson! It means a lot to us! Randy! We love Yah! THe Peace of the Lord! Fr. Farkin
Bob! Don't forget..WHO WILL THE NEXT FOOL BE? Charlie's best! Still mourning Billy Lee!

Brett said...

Randy,

Beautifully written sentiments. I never got to meet Jim but heard him play on several occasions. I did a few of his tunes Saturday night on Soul Stew, but really could not do his music justice. I am not the person for that and won't pretend to be that person. However, Paul Williams is going to do a two hour tribute tomorrow night on "Bebe's Berserkathon" at 8 p.m. on FM 89.9 Thought you might be interested in hearing that program.

Best,

Brett Fleming

kwk said...

". . . if you're not doing something different."
This is different: 8 Miles Wide

You have to get past the intro setup (Massengill douche commercial part) and then it just keeps getting more and more different. Even the three part "behind the scenes" companion pieces are funny.

Anonymous said...

Man that was beautiful. Now you got me all tuned up to cry again.
What a font of knowledge he was and always joyfully shared with me anything I'd ask him about.
Oh man I could go on and on.

thanks,
jaketherake

Gimme a Break said...

Jim will be missed.
Good job Randy!
Your passion may be politics, but your best writing is always outside political topics.

mudskipperinmemphis said...

Hey Randy - For some reason, Don McGregor thought of me and called to tell me Jim had passed on to make the angels laugh at wicked jokes. Guess it's because I've always modeled my fashion sense on Jim... I thought it was the signal of an era passing, too, and was glad he and his friends had exposed me to the love of the eccentric and living your own life when I was coming up in the '70's. I always thought Mudboy would play at my wedding, then Lee left and I thought, well, at least Jim Dickinson can play, and well, now here I am thinking, well, I probably won't get married, anyway. Too confining...

Anonymous said...

Randy, thought of you not only at the Dickinson tribute at The Skyway, but at the Dewey Phillips note unveiling.
When ya gonna come outta the house?
Quite hiding your light under the bushel -- your eulogy to Jim Dickinson shows just what a treasure of music history you are -- and you aren't just writing about it - you're one of the few who experienced it from the inside! Love ya always. Linnie

Anonymous said...

Well remembered, Randy.
As a very young woman I remember following the sounds of Ry Cooder to WEVL (when at 16 watts it was COMMUNITY radio) and becoming part of a music loving "family" that grew me up out of records and went on to raise me, rock me, and sing me to sleep in the street festivals & venues of Memphis. I didn't understand Mudboy as much as I got Mudboy and everytime they played something happened to me that made me feel privileged to have been saved by music. Mud and river got all up in me. And Jim kept it alive and well. Like air you breathe. It feels like the air has been sucked out of Memphis with Jim's passing, and I take solace (as I did the first time I heard the boys play after Lee died) that his kindness, generosity, honesty, and talent will continue to float through the air like radio waves, bouncin' around and stayin' with us in our grief.

Miles said...

Miles said,"Jim will be missed, Memphis never gave him the reverence he deserved while he was here, but the tribute/benefit at least showed a lot of folks heard and loved him. Like he said, he may be dead, but he ain't gone. Luther and Cody and lots of others like Amy are carrying the mark of the master. No one can ever be the same after his influence."

DinTN said...

I was thinking about how I knew Jim.
I produced some sides with a girl from Memphis named Donna Weis and he came to the session, might have played, it was a long time ago. Donna got so high she freaked out., I had some good weed. I enjoyed the time.
d

Father Farken said...

Bob Dylan sez "Music is the water cooler where everyone hangs out!" I think you just proved Dylan right today! The Peace of the Lord! Ferghus

Anonymous said...

Warm and wonderful, Randy!

I had a few great conversations with Jim over the years. Always enlightening for me, as well as entertaining. He forgot his MLGW musical rant at the first Beale St. Music Festival, until I once reminded him. Only Jim could make his outrage into entertainment with an impromptu melody. The fact that MLG&W was demolishing the lower end of Beale for a new HQ really pissed Jim off, and he created a tune cursing the utility's commander-in-chief. "Fucking Mr. Looney", if I recall correctly.

But my funniest moment concerning Jim occurred at a Beale St. gathering of illuminati. I was sitting next to our friend Jay, when Jim and Mary Lindsay arrived. Jim was wearing an outrageous vintage printed shirt, and Jay mumbled, "Where did he get that shirt?" I responded, "He inherited it from Bukka." Jay jumped up immediately and raced over to Jim to tell him what I had said. It was a treat to watch Jim burst into laughter. He was, after all, the successor to "World Boogie is Coming!"

Thanks again, RJ. Love, Denise Tapp

Paul said...

Beautiful piece. I was DJ'ing Sunday morning at a festival in the middle of the Irish countryside, playing records to get people up and out of their tents, helping 'em deal with their hangovers and get a start on another one. I dug out Jim's track The Lonesome Death of Johnny Ace and was halfway thru it when a friend turned up and showed me the message he'd just got - 'Jim Dickinson, RIP'. I played his music for the rest of my stint, and tears fell freely. I was lucky enough to spend two-three days working with him, and was at that rarest of things, a Mud Boy rehearsal. He changed my life for the better, and I have tears in my eyes right now as I write this. World Boogie is Still Coming, but - damn, we will all miss him so much.

Casey Monahan said...

Really great essay on JLD. Thanks for sharing. Like Sam Phillips says, "If you're not doing something different..." - great advice for any producer!
You might be interested in the 6,000+-word Dickinson oral history just published here:
http://joenickp.blogspot.com/2009/08/james-luther-dickinson.html

Olga said...

What a lovely piece! Thanks for writing and sharing...

William said...

Thanks Randy. Very moving.

Anonymous said...

Randy,as one of the last of a dying generation and a walking encyclopedia of the music of an era that has past on, you really need to make up with the folks at WEVL and get back to deejaying. You need to keep the flame of the old days alive. If not you, then who? Someone mentioned Lee Baker. I got to hear him play with Jimmy Segerson the week before he was murdered. What a great memory for me and what a waste of a talented life. He was killed by a worthless piece of crap.

Father Farken said...

THE MAN MAKES A VERY GOOD POINT RANDY! TELL WEVL THAT YOU ARE UNDER THE SPIRITUAL CARE OF FATHER FARKEN & RABBI LIPSCHITZE AND THAT THE COUNTRY IS UNDER AN OBAMA ADMINISTRATION OF LOVE & PEACE AND THAT THERE IS NO WAY TO EVER GO APE SHIT AGAIN NO MATTER HOW JUSTIFIED. YOU HAVE GOT THE OLIVE BRANCH BROTHER.... PITCH IT OUT TO THEM NO MATTER HOW UNWORTHY THE BASTARDS MAY BE! LET THE KNOWLEDGE & WITTISISM OF MEMPHIS & ITS MUSIC DO THE WORK OF RECONCILIATION THAT BREAKS DOWN ALL BARRIERS & HEALS ALL WOUNDS NO MATTER HOW DEEP! RANDY! YOU ARE A MUSICAL GENEOUS. WE NEED YOU! IN THE NAME OF WC HANDY, FURY, SNOOKIE, SAM. DEWEY, RUFUS, THE GKer, THE GREAT ELVIS PRESLEY, THE PRISONAIRES, THE WOLF, CARL, JERRY & BILLY LEE, ROY, WARREN SMITH, SLIM RHODES, MARGAREET PIATZA. THE MGs, CARLA, THE STAPLES, CHARLIE FEATHERS, CHARLIE RICH, CASH, JOHNNY & DORSEY, BB, BOBBY BLUE BLAND, THE REV AL, THE BLACK MOSES, JIM LUTHER DICKENS, THE LARGOs, THE COUNTS, THE RADIANTS AND A CAST OF THOUSANDS ...MOST ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO POST ON THIS BLOG...INCLUDING THAT MOUSEKETEER TIMBERLAKE ...& MOST IMPORTANTLY...IN THE NAME OF OUR LORD JESUS WHO MADE HIS LIFE & OFFERING FOR YOU & LOVES YOU ALL NO MATTER WHAT! THE PEACE OF THE LORD! FATHER FARKEN

Drew Hadfield said...

Thank you, Randy, for this wonderful piece. We lost a great one. Again.

Anonymous said...

WEVL should be crawling on it's knees to beg you to come back---- and then you should say NO.You should be paid for your talent and your expertise. Memphis doesn't know what it has in you. Like everything else that is so great about Memphis, it takes a true genius to discover it. Where are you Oh Radio God ?

Father Farken said...

Yes! Randy should be paid for his talents & he should be paid well!

Anonymous said...

I think that someone should plan a rally at Young's Deli to honor Randy and his contributions to Memphis music. Maybe WEVL could air it. Interviews with those in attendance could emphasize Randy's encyclopedic knowledge of the Memphis music scene and of pop music in general. Maybe this would get someone's attention in broadcasting and lead to a new deejay job for Randy. It's worth a try. Anybody up for ramroding this? What about you, Father Farken? Or maybe someone on this blog has influence with someone in the Memphis broadcasting scene. You could sent them old tapes of some of Randy's deejaying. Time is awasting. Someone needs to get proactive on this issue or we may never get to hear Randy's unique talents as a deejay again. In my humble opinion, he was the best of them all. Even better than Dewey and his fur-lined ducks. I don't mean to steal Jim Dickinson's thunder, but his passing makes me more urgent to rally in behalf of Randy before he too is gone.

Steve Steffens said...

thank you, Randy, this was wonderful.

We are about to do the first Memphis Music & Heritage Festival without him in my memory, and it won't be the same.

Father Farken said...

Recent Anonymous! I love your CALL TO ARMS! I am trying to keep the fort down between Newark & Nashville! But I want to be involved! For the sake of Randy & Memphis this must be done! SPUTNIK MUST BE HONORED! HE IS MEMPHIS MUSIC! BETTER THAN DEWEY? SOUNDS SACRILIDGES! But I will say it again...RANDY MUST BE HONORED! The peace of the Lord! FFF

Sputnik57 said...

I very much appreciate all the kind wishes. Truth be told, however, I'd rather be paid than honored. Somebody, call Sam.
Randy

All Wee Wee'd Up said...

All Jews & Gentile! Republicans & Democrats! Hippies & Traditionalist! Let us put politics a side for just a little while & storm the gates of heaven & pray that a Memfrica radio station will pick up Sputnic & pay him some real... well...well...well ...serious money! He is memphis' finest!

Reseda Mickey said...

Several things:

First, I had a big crush on you back when, but you were sooo out of my league. I remember you said a person had to play music for at lest 5 years to be any good – and another time you said you didn’t like camping out - “gimme a nice hotel room with a hot shower”. My kinda guy.

2nd did you know Mike Finnegan also has a political blog – he does a roundup: http://crooksandliars.com/mike-finnigan/mikes-blog-roundup-267

3rd About Jim’s fashion sense: When I was Larry Nix’s secretary at the end of Stax era, Dickinson came in w/ Mary who was preganant. Dickinson was wearing a huge serape that made him look just as pregnant! He seemed a bit grumpy, but business was bad at the time...

Mike Licht said...

August was a rough month for American music.

See

http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/08/27/a-rough-month-for-american-music/

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful info. Hang it high. It was very well said.

Anonymous said...

That was wonderful. As a friend of Jim's outside of memphis i have been reading the outpouring on the web but this is the best I have seen. I feel like I will never stop being broken up about losing him. I think thought I would go first.

-philip stevenson