Dickens, Little Jimmy
Little Jimmy Dickens
Standing just under five feet tall and performing with an outsized guitar, Little Jimmy Dickens has been a Grand Ole Opry regular since 1948. Well past the age when most people retire, Dickens was still going strong in the early 1990s as a host and featured performer on the Opry and is a special favorite of the many senior citizens peppering a typical Opry audience. Although his long career includes a string of country hits released throughout the 1940s and 1950s—and even a major crossover pop hit—Dickens contents himself with serving as a jovial, genial reminder of the Opry’s colorful past.
Born in rural Bolt, West Virginia, on December 19, 1920, Dickens was the youngest of 13 children; he has often joked about being the “runt of the litter,” especially since he grew no taller than 4’11”. He was raised on a farm and, like many rural folk, taught himself to play the guitar for entertainment. “As a child I wanted to be a professional entertainer, so I worked at it. I picked up what I could from my mother and my uncle—when they’d let me have the guitar,” he recalled to Kyle Cantrell in the album liner notes to Straight … From the Heart, 1949-55. Dickens learned to play and sing what he heard on the radio—the country, western, and string band music of the Appalachian Mountain region.
The young Dickens earned good grades in high school, where he became interested in acting and was even afforded the opportunity to audition for a role in a Broadway play. “In high school, I was very active in dramatics and public speaking, and did a lot of high school plays and so forth,” he related to Cantrell. After graduating, Dickens enrolled at the University of West Virginia. He stayed there only briefly, however, because the prospects looked promising for a career in music. Some years shy of 20, he won his first professional singing job with station WJLS in Beckley, West Virginia. There, calling himself “Jimmy the Kid,” he worked with Johnny Bailes and His Happy Valley Boys, opening the morning show with his famous rooster crow. The group moved to the slightly larger WMNN in Fairmont before disbanding during World War II.
The mid-1940s found Dickens working as a solo act for large stations in the Midwest. He moved from WING in Dayton, Ohio, to WLW in Cincinnati, and until 1948 he worked for WKNX in Saginaw, Michigan. At the latter station he met country giant Roy Acuff, who invited him to make a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.
For the Record…
Born James Cecil Dickens, December 19, 1920, in Bolt, WV; son of a farmer; wife, Ernestine, is deceased; children: Pamela Jean. Education: Attended University of West Virginia.
Country singer, guitarist, and songwriter, 1943—. As Jimmy the Kid, sang on several radio shows in West Virginia, including WJLS in Beckley and WMNN in Fairmont. Moved to the Midwest in the mid-1940s; appeared on WKNX, Saginaw, MI; WING, Dayton, OH; and WLW, Cincinnati, OH. Host and performer on the Grand Ole Opry, 1948—. Signed with Columbia Records, c. 1947; released first hit, “Take an Old Cold Tater,” in 1949. Has made numerous guest appearances on television programs, including The Tonight Show, Hee Haw, and The Jimmy Dean Show.
Selected awards: Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1983.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.
western cities where he had been working during the war. Nevertheless, he was an instant hit with the Opry audience and brought down the house. Two weeks later, the Opry management invited him back as a regular. Columbia Records signed him shortly thereafter, and he began releasing what would become a long string of hits.
While not a prolific songwriter himself, Dickens chose material that reflected his hillbilly upbringing and diminutive stature. In 1949 he had his first Top Ten country hit with “Take an Old Cold Tater.” He followed this success with other, similar numbers: “Country Boy,” “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “Hillbilly Fever,” “Out Behind the Barn,” and “I Got a Hole in My Pocket.” His repertoire of charted hits also included the usual love and heartbreak songs, including two he wrote himself, “Sea of Broken Dreams” and “I Sure Would Like to Sit a Spell With You.”
Dickens made his biggest mark as a singer of loud and sometimes silly novelty songs. These became a staple of his Opry performance and the cornerstone of the show he took on tour around the world. He also made guest appearances on a number of television programs, including the Tonight Show, Hee Haw, and The Jimmy Dean Show.
According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., however, Dickens was more than a mere novelty singer. “Dickens’ voice conveyed great emotional strength (a trait displayed by many West Virginia singers) and he possessed probably the most pronounced vibrato in country music,” Malone noted. “No one has ever been a better performer of ‘heart’ songs or of honky-tonk weepers. Dickens’ soulful intensity—displayed on such songs as ‘Take Me As I Am,’ ‘We Could,’ ‘Just When I Needed You,’ and ‘What About You’—made him a much-admired entertainer among his singing contemporaries and contributed to his success of jukeboxes all over the nation.”
Few country singers survived the advent of rock and roll without somehow modifying their acts. Just as Dickens seemed about to fade into obscurity in 1965, he released a raucous novelty tune, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose.” The song—a string of humorous curses similar to the title—became an enormous hit, topping both the country and pop charts. After 13 years as a country headliner, and approaching age 40, Dickens found himself in greater demand than ever. He even quit the Opry for a time in order to stay on the road for longer periods.
By 1979 Dickens was back with the Opry and in 1983 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. With his flashy attire and down-home patter, he harkens back to the Opry’s glory years of the 1940s, when radio reigned supreme and each performer had a distinct personality. As Melvin Shestack put it in The Country Music Encyclopedia, “Everybody who is interested in country music has heard of Little Jimmy Dickens.” Shestack concluded: “His name undoubtedly draws old-timey fans in rural areas who still play his happy novelty numbers. He is, as they say, a credit to country music.”
Little Jimmy Dickens, Columbia.
Big Songs, Columbia.
Behind the Barn, Columbia.
Best of Little Jimmy Dickens, Harmony.
Old Country Church, Harmony.
Ain’t It Fun?, Harmony.
Little Jimmy Dickens Sings, Decca.
Big Man in Music, Columbia.
May the Bird of Paradise, Columbia.
Little Jimmy Dickens (anthology, 1949-60), Columbia Historic Editions.
Straight … From the Heart, 1949-55, Rounder Records, 1990.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Country Music, March/April 1990.
Other sources include album liner notes to Straight … From the Heart, Rounder Records, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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