AmericanA to Z – Jim Dickinson

While the name JimDickinson may not garner much recognition except by those of us who used to devour countless record sleeves to glean as much information as possible about writers, backing musicians studios etc in the days before the internet, as a recording artist, producer and session musician he embodied the essence of what makes roots American music great. He has contributed to some of the best and most interesting music of the last 50 or so years. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1941 he moved to Memphis in 1950 when he was 9 years old and it was Memphis that was the biggest influence on his musical development and career and led to him becoming the embodiment of that city’s music. While he died in 2009 his ethos and influence are being maintained by his sons Luther and Cody Dickinson, the guitarist and drummer with the North Mississippi Allstars.

The young Dickinson’s family home was musical but reflected the middle-class tastes of the day. In his posthumously published autobiography “I’M JUST DEAD I’M NOT GONE” he recounts the impact of hearing a group of street musicians playing near his father’s office when he was just 9 years old. This group included Will Shade of the famed Memphis Jug Band. The young Jim then sought every opportunity to hear this different music becoming a fan of Dewey Philips DJ on WHBO Memphis, the first DJ to play Elvis. After college he started playing sessions in Memphis and these included Gus Cannon’s (of Cannon’s Jug Stompers) last album, which was the first album released on the new Stax label in 1963. He also appeared on what is reputedly the last great Sun single, ‘Cadillac Man’, by the Jesters in 1966 with Jim playing piano and singing lead though he was not a member of the group. He then started producing at the famed Ardent Studios and over the next couple of years put together the Dixie Flyers, a group of like-minded musicians who included Charlie Freeman guitar, Sammy Creason drums, Michael Utley keyboards and Tommy McClure bass.

It was the Dixie Flyers who brought Jim to prominence when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records made them his house band at Criteria Studios Miami following a falling out with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Jim was himself in Muscle Shoals when the Rolling Stones hit town to record three songs in late 1969 and it is Jim’s piano playing that is heard on ‘Wild Horses’ and is such an integral part of the song. The Dixie Flyers’ biggest success was with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spirit In The Dark’ album and subsequent tour and live recording. They also worked on albums by Jerry Jeff Walker, Ronnie Hawkins, Delaney and Bonnie, Sam Samundo, Carmen McCrae and many more. It was at this time that Jim worked on numerous sessions with Duane Allman and is was Duane who pushed Jim to make his own record. Jim wanted to return to Memphis and agreed with Jerry Wexler that he could leave the Dixie Flyers and make a solo album.

Jerry Wexler is quoted as saying “Jim Dickinson is an improbable recombinant – a demonic original Sun Records rocker who reads Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. He can play the shit out of his National Steel and then jump on the piano and lay down the no doubt best key of C picking you’re ever going to hear.” His 1972 solo album fully reflects these characteristics. He is backed by the Dixie Flyers with support from Dr John and others and it is an eclectic mix of, largely, covers ranging from Carl Perkins’ title track to the local cult Memphis songwriter Bob Frank’s ‘Wild Bill Jones’. The performances range from the crazed version of ‘Wine’, which Bob Dylan reputedly used to listen to before going on stage to get his adrenalin going to the Tom Waits like take on the old medicine show song ‘O How She Dances’.

Jim continued his session and freelance production work in the 1970’s which included albums by Maria Muldaur, the Flamin’ Groovies and Big Star’s  ‘Third‘. The ’70s also marked the beginning of Jim’s long association with Ry Cooder who has said “He’s this…This genius from down around Memphis. The man’s a damn resource. Jim Dickinson’s always been a fabulous producer. It’s just that most of what he’s done has been invisible to the naked eye.” The first Cooder album Jim played on was ‘Into The Purple Valley’ and he worked on another 9 including the iconic ‘Paris, Texas’.

Additionally, while Jim is known much more for finding interesting songs to cover rather than actually writing them it was with Ry Cooder that he wrote one modern classic ‘Across The Borderline’, which first appeared on ‘The Border’ soundtrack and has been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Bob Dylan.

During the ’80s and ’90s Jim continued to record and produce various artists including the Residents, Toots Hibbert and The Texas Tornados. Bob Dylan also wanted him on his ‘Time Out Of Mind’ album, saying to Daniel Lanois “If you’ve got Dickinson, you don’t need anybody else”. Jim was naturally nervous about working with Dylan but the ice was broken immediately when Bob tried to score a copy of ‘They Walk Among Us’ by Jim’s performance art electric blues band Mud Boy And The Neutrons which is said to be the best album never heard by anybody. Unfortunately, even Bob couldn’t get a copy.

Jim spent the ’00s continuing to develop a recording facility in the Mississippi hill country he called Zebra Ranch. Musically he reactivated his own career with three albums mirroring the idiosyncratic performances and obscure song selection as ‘Dixie Fried’ and featuring his sons Cody and Luther, instead of the Dixie Flyers, and a trio album of pre rock and roll songs. He also put considerable effort into supporting and developing his sons’ recording career as The North Mississippi Allstars. He continued to work sessions for artists such as John Hiatt, Amy LaVette and Alvin Youngblood Hart and various members of the Burnside clan who are the champions of real Mississippi hill country blues.

The Canon: There are 5 Jim Dickinson studio albums ‘Dixie Fried’ (1972) , ‘Free Beer Tomorrow  (2002), ‘Jungle Jim And The Voodoo Tiger’ (2006), ‘Dinosaurs Run In Circles’ (2009), a spoken word album ‘Fishing With Charlie And Other Selected Readings’ (2006), a live album with Chuck Prophet ‘A Thousand Footprints In The Sand’ (1997) and two posthumous live albums with the North Mississippi Allstars ‘I’m Just Dead Not Gone’ (2012) and ‘I’m Just Dead Not Gone Lazarus Edition’ (2017). Mud Boy And The Neutrons released 2 albums, ‘Known Felons In Drag’ (1986) and ‘Negro Streets At Dawn’ (1993), and a compilation ‘They Walk Among Us’ (1995). Jim also curated 4 compilation albums covering some of his favourite artists and influences ‘Beale Street Saturday Night’ (1979), Delta Experimental Project Vol. I’ (1988), ‘Delta Experimental Project Vol. II’ (1990) and ‘Delta Experimental Project Vol. III’ (2003). There is the ‘Raisins In The Sun’ (2001) album by a musical collective featuring Jim, Chuck Prophet and Jules Shear. Finally, there are the countless sessions and productions.

Key Tracks: With such a long and varied career it is very difficult to summarise Jim Dickinson in a few tracks but the following give a feel for what an incredible and influential musician he was.

” Cadillac Man” by The Jesters from his Sun years.

“Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones with Jim on piano in Muscle Shoals

”Wine” from ‘Dixie Fried’

“Red Neck, Blue Collar” written by the underrated Bob Frank from ‘Jungle Jim And The Voodoo Tiger’.

 

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

1 thought on “AmericanA to Z – Jim Dickinson”

  1. Good article – and thanks for the Freddy Fender/Ry Cooder video “Across the Borderline” at the end, it was worth it for reminding us of the silent humanitarian crisis at that border.

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