Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson died at the age of 67 on Saturday, while recovering from triple-bypass surgery. Dickinson, the father of North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody and Luther Dickinson, was a legend in his own time, with a career that spanned over four decades. During his storied life, he was a session player for the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, a producer for cult bands like the Replacements and Big Star, and a solo artist who made critically- acclaimed albums of vintage Southern rock and roll.
The son of a piano-teaching mother, Dickinson’s distinctive keyboard work can be heard on the Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, as well as on albums by Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave. In 1966, his career got underway with the song “Cadillac Man,” which he recorded for Sun Records, run by his idol, Sam Phillips. In 1972, he released his debut solo album, the musically ambitious Dixie Fried. His latest solo effort, the early roots collection Dinosaurs Run in Circles, came out in May of this year.
“Some of the records I’ve done, really obscure things, will be the ones that somebody will tell you saved their lives,” Dickinson once said.
These liner notes, by writer Joe Nick Patoski for the 2007 album Killers From Space, help tell his story:
“The flame was lit in Memphis even though he was warned not to play with matches. Will Shade, Charlie Burse, Good Kind and the Memphis Jug Band were his first revelation, making exotic sounds as if they were “Martians playing music” to the nine year old child’s ears. The family yard man Smart Alec mentored him and delivered a pianist named Dishrag to show hi the code, which eventually allowed a Jewish record entrepreneur named Ruben Cherry to pass him off as colored. He as called Little Muddy on his first recordings made for the House of Blues label. Jimmy Reed inspired him to seek the path of the Down and Dirty. In Waco, lysergic acid diethylamide and an outlaw drama director named Paul Baker conjured hallucinations to counterbalance Bible studies and No Dancing edicts issued from the pulpit. The singer Fury Lewis, the disc jockey Dewey Phillips, the rassler Sputnik Monore, the writer Larry Brown and the whip fetishist Lash Larue provided other cures. They informed the mojo he created, one so all-powerful but elusive that Mick and Keith tried to steal if from him (they couldn’t) and Ry Cooder, Paul Westerberg, and Bob Dylan hired him to borrow it.
By the time he was old enough to know better, the mojo let him to northern Mississippi, land of shotgun shacks and deep blues, and finally to a spread of two trailer homes, a barn and a one-room shack known as the Fortress of Solitude. What others could interpret as rural poverty in that golden triangle between Senatobia, Oxford and Holly Springs, Bob Dylan saw as ‘everything you could want,’ a place where ‘a man could do a lot thinking.’
This is the space James Luther Dickinson comes from. Hear him and you hear the ghost of Otha Turner marching on the picnic grounds of Como playing his pipes with several generations of Turners following behind, the spirit of Robert Johnson emerging out of the fog on Highway 61, inviting you to shake hand with the Devil himself, R.L. Burnside up in the Hill Country carving out a drunken drone, same as it ever was and always will be, and the No Miss boys taking the flame and running with it. Learn in real close and the sound of kudzu growing becomes audible. Mysterious, exuberant, and wholly alien, this is he music meant to steal your soul. Hold on to what you got, and surrender the rest of it.”
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My heart goes out to the Dickinson family, friends and followers. God Bless You All, Luther and Cody your brothers love you, we are all here!!
I am saddened by this news. I saw Jim Dickinson perform a couple of times in Memphis–once at a Mud Island show during which he did a great version of “Never Make a Move Too Soon,” a song B. B. King had recorded in the late ’70s, and once with Mud Boy and the Neutrons, a group that featured the late guitarist Lee Baker and singer Sid Selvidge. Both were extraordinary experiences.
Typically, many obituary-writers have neglected to mention what are among Dickinson’s signal achievements. Foremost, perhaps, is the remarkable aural documentary of Beale Street called Beale Street Saturday Night, issued in 1979 on LP and unavailable on CD as I write this. Interspersed with incredible narratives by Thomas Pinkston, a Beale Street fig. ure whose stories frame the music, the record includes performances by Selvidge, Furry Lewis, Teenie Hodges and Mud Boy and the Neutrons performing Lewis’ “On the Road Again” with Dickinson on drums.
Dickinson also produced one of the great neglected American records of the late ’70s, Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert, an unparalleled example of creative nose-thumbing at the American song, yet a record done with respect for the hidden meanings of those songs. Like many records of the punk era, it has inspired all those brave enough to listen.
Dickinson also played in one of the great soul-music house bands, the Dixie Flyers, who backed Albert Collins and many others–including Aretha Franklin on what is probably her best record, 1970’s Spirit in the Dark.
A legendary storyteller and, at times, an acerbic commentator on pop music, Dickinson had a flair for the one-liner. “Giving synthesizers to the English was like giving Native Americans whiskey–their culture never recovered,” he once said. (I am paraphrasing but think I have it pretty close.) I met him a couple of times in Memphis and was, frankly, in awe of him, and was fortunate enough to have written about him at the time ofKillers from Space. He was a fantastic interview subject.