Chris Morris Remembers Jim Dickinson
The below is an obituary on Jim Dickinson – the Southern music legend who passed away last week – by Chris Morris:
Chalk it up to my engagement with musical history, but I tend to fixate on the passing of musicians. In my years at Billboard, I was one of the main obituary writers there. The obit desk has had entirely too much to do this August: Since the first of the month, talents as magnificent and diverse as Billy Lee Riley, Mike Seeger, Willy DeVille, Les Paul, and Rashied Ali have all died.
Today came a tough one, a personal one. Singer-pianist Jim Dickinson made his exit early this morning at a hospital in Memphis. He was just 67. He never completely recovered from heart bypass surgery earlier this year. Just last weekend, John Hiatt and diverse others mounted a benefit to defray Jim’s medical expenses in Memphis, where he was a major musical figure for decades.
The magazine Bucketful of Brains fittingly referred to Jim as a “non-careerist.” He was known principally as a producer and a sideman. He played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” (in a session that can be seen in the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Gimme Shelter” – that’s Jim sitting next to Keith on the couch during the playback). He was a member of the Dixie Flyers, the great but unstable Atlantic Records house band put together in the early ‘70s by Jerry Wexler. Years later, he backed Bob Dylan on “Time Out of Mind,” his album of the year Grammy winner. (Dylan referred to Dickinson as “my brother” when he picked up his little Victrola.) He produced stone classics like Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers” and the Replacements’ “Pleased to Meet Me.” His studio clients ran the gamut from Green On Red to Toots & the Maytals to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
It took Jim a while to get his own career cranking. He played piano and sang lead on the Jesters’ “Cadillac Man,” probably the last great single to emanate from Memphis’ Sun Records. He was a member of Memphis’ wacked-out Mud Boy and the Neutrons, who made records of surpassing strangeness and equal obscurity. In 1971, under Wexler’s aegis, he cut his solo album “Dixie Fried,” a wild slab of Southern-fried dementia that he co-produced with master engineer Tom Dowd. (My friend David Katznelson reissued it in 2002 on his Sepia Tone label, with wonderful new liner notes by Dickinson’s compadre Stanley Booth.) After 30 years, he got around to recording a sequel, “Free Beer Tomorrow”; some other fine and untamed solo records followed. The most recent of them, “Dinosaurs Run in Circles,” came out this spring, and you should own it. Hell, you should own all of them.
I first encountered Jim Dickinson in Austin during the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin sometime in the early ‘90s. I didn’t talk to him at that point, but I witnessed a somewhat unusual show by him at the Saxon Pub. He was backed by his sons, guitarist Luther and drummer Cody. My recollections of the gig are somewhat vague – I drank a good deal in those days – but I recall that Jim got a little impatient with the boys’ playing (I don’t think either of them were in their teens yet) and barked at them on stage. (The yelling paid off: Today, the Dickinson brothers lead the North Mississippi All Stars; Luther also plays guitar for the Black Crowes, while Cody fronts the side project the Hill Country Revue.) I do remember a good deal of excellent piano playing.
A couple years later, I started traveling down to Memphis on a pretty regular basis. Jim was one of the local treasures, and I got to see him play on several occasions. I saw him do one memorable show with his Mud Boy colleagues Sid Selvidge and Lee Baker at the Center For Southern Folklore on Beale Street. I also witnessed a couple of impressive performances at the Memphis in May Festival, held in Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi.
But what I remember most fondly was just hanging out with Jim. I never made it to his home in Hernando, Mississippi (where he ran his own recording studio), but he often drove up to Memphis. I got a chance to gab with him there several times, and he was always a priceless resource of lore, knowledge, and opinion. My favorite encounter came by chance: One afternoon I wandered into the coffee shop next door to Sun Studio and found him eating breakfast. We sat and kibitzed for quite a while.
He was the kind of musician writers loved: a fantastic raconteur, outspoken, and funny as hell. One of the best damn interviews on the face of the planet.
It’s hard to imagine Memphis without Jim Dickinson. The city will feel incomplete in his absence. I hope that Bill Ellis, the former music critic at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, will now finally finish Jim’s autobiography, which they began together so long ago. I want to savor some of the stories I never got a chance to hear first-hand.
You should seek out Jim’s music if you don’t know it already. You can learn more about him from Robert Gordon’s essential book It Came From Memphis; a lot of his recordings are available on Robert’s like-titled anthologies of Bluff City sounds. Dickinson’s stuff was always raw, gutsy, and in the pocket. And it sounds like the South always. Also check out photographer William Eggleston’s film “Stranded in Canton,” which is available on YouTube in its entirety. Jim is a major character in that picture, which serves as a snapshot of bizarro Memphis in the early ’70s. Note that he keeps playing the piano when the guns start going off. That’s the mark of a real pro.
I send my condolences and my love to Luther and Cody, to Jim’s beautiful wife Mary Lindsay, and to his many thousands of friends.
I will say goodbye as Jim always did: “World Boogie is Coming!”