Singer, music producer
Although something short of a full-fledged commercial success, Jim Dickinson is one of the Memphis area's greatest characters. A raconteur of local musical history, the multi-instrumental artist is also one of the area's most eccentric and prolific musicians and producers. In a career spanning five decades, he has played behind such greats as Brook Benton, James Carr, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones. He has also produced sessions for such popular cult acts as Big Star, The Replacements, and Flat Duo Jets. As an artist in his own right, he has cut folk and blues, recorded and toured with the experimental boogie and funk aggregation Mud Boy and the Neutrons, and made rock and blues recordings under his own name. Only a few of these enterprises have resulted in decent paydays, but the artistic freedom he allows his fellow recording artists is legendary, and new acts still flock to his door, hoping to bask in the loose creative atmosphere of his Zebra Ranch studios.
Began in Rock and Theater
Born James Luther Dickinson on November 21, 1941, in Little Rock, Arkansas, the aspiring singer-songwriter's family moved to Memphis while he was still a boy. Young Jim grew up in an integrated area, hearing the blues, country music, and pop freely intermingling on jukeboxes, on the streets, and from a local yard man. "Alex Tiel taught me everything he thought was important to teach a nine-year-old white boy," he told Robert Gordon, author of It Came from Memphis. "How to shoot craps, how to throw a knife under-handed—the important life lessons. When it came to something he didn't know, he would run in an expert. He wasn't a musician, but he sang as he worked, unaccompanied, and when he realized I was interested in the music, he brought in a man who taught me the technique that I learned to play from." Since poor vision kept the boy from reading music, Tiel brought in two local pianists named "Butterfly" and "Dishrag" to teach him the blues scale and major triads, the basis for all his work on the instrument today.
Dickinson became a teenager just as R&B-based rock 'n' roll began taking the country by storm, and he obsessively listened to Dewey Phillips's Red, Hot, And Blue radio show on WHBQ. Brimming over with live music venues, Memphis proved the perfect training ground to get a foothold in the music business. Aided by high school friends, he formed the Regents, a local rock 'n' roll band that recorded for the Home of the Blues label but never saw anything released.
Dickinson quit music to attend Baylor University in Texas, but after two years of studying drama under Paul Baker, he left and returned to Memphis. Hoping to avoid the draft, he attended Memphis State University, where he performed with a troupe called Market Theater in a series of one-act plays. Many of these events were preceded by a folk musician named Sid Selvidge, who befriended Dickinson and drew him back into music with a vengeance. Soon Dickinson was playing folk music and, following the lead of author Sam Charters, he began tracking down forgotten blues artists such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, while playing with his own ragtag ensemble the New Beale Street Sheiks. The act, and Dickinson in particular, caught the eye of bandleader/producer Bill Justis. The former Sun artist/arranger contracted Dickinson and two other folk singers to perform on an album his orchestra was making for Smash/Mercury called Dixieland, Folk Style.
A Legendary Session Man
Dickinson worked around Memphis as a pianist for a couple of years before he latched on with a local group called the Jesters. Signed to Sun Records by Sam Phillips's son Knox, they cut a rowdy Coasters' style party record called "Cadillac Man." At that time, Sun had regressed from the country's most important independent label to a local afterthought, and the record died on the vine. However, the experience bolstered his reputation with local producers, and that resulted in regular session gigs.
While Dickinson was attending Memphis State University, John Fry at Ardent Studios hired him as an assistant engineer in 1966, and under the tutelage of John King he cut his production teeth on a series of radio jingles. Meanwhile, the session work was mounting up and something rather exciting was happening over at Stan Kesler's Sounds of Memphis studio. Through trial and error Dickinson pieced together a house band with a freewheeling sense of groove—former Jerry Lee Lewis guitarist Charlie Freeman, bassist Tommy Mc-Clure, drummer Sammy Creason, and Dickinson on piano. The group became known as the Dixie Flyers, and they recorded behind such legendary artists as Hank Ballard, Betty Lavette, Albert Collins, and James Carr.
Impressed by their work behind bluesman Albert Collins, Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler hired the Dixie Flyers to become the house band at their Criteria Studios in Miami. The Dixie Flyers crafted their finest work for Atlantic, cutting sessions behind the likes of Delaney and Bonnie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sam and Dave, and Ronnie Hawkins. Their work with Aretha Franklin on "Don't Play That Song For Me" won the Queen of Soul a Grammy Award. However, the Flyers' hard-partying ways caused the band to fall apart. Atlantic exacerbated the problem when they tried to transform them from a studio-only band into a live performance group with a recording deal. Billed as Soldiers of the Cross, they had previously made one live appearance at the 1969 Memphis Blues Festival. Still, the group was not cut out to work in front of an audience, and after a lengthy tour backing Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, they disbanded.
Balanced Production with Solo Career
The break-up of the Dixie Flyers resulted in a contract restructuring that allowed Dickinson to cut his first solo album, Dixie Fried. Named after Carl Perkins's 1957 country hit, the LP was chock-full of gospel-drenched boogie, snarling southern rock, and rough-hewn soul. Critics loved it but audiences ignored the pianist's debut. Meanwhile, Dickinson had made a name for himself playing piano on the Rolling Stones' hit "Wild Horses," and he was also seen in the film Gimme Shelter.
Dickinson's most mainstream association came after he had moved to Los Angeles and met Ry Cooder. The guitarist hired him to replace Van Dyke Parks on his second album, Into The Purple Valley, and the duo instantly clicked. Together they worked up album soundtracks for the movies Paris, Texas, Alamo Bay, The Long Riders, and Blue City. As soon as he learned how big-time producers did their job, he moved home to Memphis and began producing on a regular basis.
For the Record …
Born James Luther Dickinson on November 21, 1941, in Little Rock, AR; married Mary Lindsay Andrews; children: Luther and Cody. Education: Attended Baylor University in Texas; Memphis State University, degrees in history and anthropology.
Singer, songwriter, musical sideman, producer, 1958–; formed his own rock group the Regents, 1958; recorded for Southtown as Jim Dickinson and the New Beale Street Sheiks, 1964, as Jim Dickinson and the Cat-mando Quartet, 1965, and as the Avengers for Ardent and MGM, 1966; played piano for the Jesters on Sun Records, 1966; played piano on "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones, 1969; played on Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind album, 1998; worked as session man for producers Chips Moman, John Fry, and Stan Kesler, mid-1960s–1970; with studio ensemble the Dixie Flyers, became house band for Atlantic recording stars Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, and Jerry Jeff Walker, 1972; produced recordings by such performers as Ry Cooder, Alex Chilton and Big Star, the Replacements, Toots and the Maytals, Tav Falco and Panther Burns, Flat Duo Jets, and the North Mississippi All Stars, 1972–; toured with Mudboy and the Neutrons, late 1970s–early 1990s; recorded as solo artist for Atlantic, Memphis Development, Last Call, Artemis, Birdman, and Memphis International, 1972–2006.
Awards: Memphis chapter of NARAS, Board of Directors Governor's Award for Best Producer, 1992–1998.
Addresses: Record company—Memphis International Records, 2240 Union Ave. #39, Memphis, TN 38104; phone: (901) 276-6661, fax: (901) 276-5867; e-mail: [email protected], website: http://www.memphisinternational.com. Website—Jim Dickinson Official Website: http://www.zebraranch.com.
Keeping up a torrid pace, Dickinson continued working sessions as a musician even while he was in demand as a producer. Post-punk and alternative rock acts such as Big Star, the Replacements, Green On Red, Alex Chilton, Jason and the Scorchers, and Primal Scream all chose Dickinson to help realize their creative vision. He confided to Memphis Magazine, "I think artists bring me their dark material. I figure if an artist has something that's unique, that's what they better concentrate on. Most producers homogenize the product, I try to stir things up a little bit."
One of the highlights of Dickinson's session career came when he played piano on Bob Dylan's 1998 album Time Out of Mind. Of great personal importance to the producer/pianist was the creation of his own Zebra Ranch studios. Formerly a barn, the Coldwater, Mississippi, studio was named for the Zebra-stripe carpets that hung on the walls. He recorded such like-minded friends as Alvin Youngblood Hart, Calvin Russell, and his own sons Luther and Cody, best-known as two-thirds of the North Mississippi Allstars. "There's a definite thing that happens when families plays together," he explained to Commercial Appeal, "because we can sense each other and feel each other in a way you never can with outsiders or strangers. And my sons are so good at this point, that even if I could hire anyone I wanted, I don't know who else I'd hire."
A Sporadic Solo Career
By most accounts, the well-schooled, well-read Dickinson is a first class eccentric who is not shy about acting weird in public. Once during an episode of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion he used valuable air time explaining the relationship of sea level to the profundity of Delta blues and rock 'n' roll. Some audience members laughed, others were completely mystified, precisely the reaction Dickinson had hoped to provoke. This playful, intellectual oddness also seeped into his recording career. In 1972 he helped form Mud Boy and the Neutrons, a funk and blues band that recorded three wildly experimental albums heard by only a few.
Meanwhile, Dickinson maintained a rather cavalier attitude about his own recording career, releasing an album here and there, usually to good reviews and minimal sales. Many reviewers believed that his 2002 disc for Artemis, Free Beer Tomorrow, was as good as homemade roots music gets. But in 2006 the session boss put the world on notice that he can be a productive artist under the right circumstances. Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, released on the tiny Memphis International label, displayed effortless rapport with his sons on a bracing set of grunge-blues, honky-tonk, and folk protest. The second album he released that year, Fishing with Charlie and Other Selected Readings, featured recitations of passages written by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, and Tennessee Williams. Although the disc helped him achieve one of his youthful theatrical goals, don't look for Dickinson to abandon music anytime soon. "I feel like I can affect a record simply with my physical presence," Dickinson told Harp Magazine. "And when I no longer feel that way, I'll stop."
Dixie Fried, Atlantic, 1972.
Beale Street Saturday Night, Memphis Development, 1979.
A Thousand Footprints in the Sand, Last Call/Sony, France, 1997.
Free Beer Tomorrow, Artemis, 2002.
Fishing with Charlie and Other Selected Readings, Birdman, 2006.
Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, Memphis International, 2006.
(Bill Justis) Dixieland Folk Style, Smash, 1964.
(Ry Cooder) Into the Purple Valley, Reprise, 1971.
(Ry Cooder) Boomer's Story, Reprise, 1972.
(The Rolling Stones) Made in the Shade, Rolling Stones, 1975.
(Big Star) Sister Lovers, Aura, 1978.
(Alex Chilton) Like Flies on Sherbert, Aura, 1980; Rykodisc, 2006.
(Ry Cooder) Long Riders, Reprise, 1980.
(Tommy Hoehn) I Do Love the Light, Powerplay, 1981.
(Ry Cooder) Slide Area, Warner Bros., 1982.
(Jason & the Scorchers) Fervor [EP], EMI America 1983.
(Ry Cooder) Alamo Bay, Slash, 1985.
(Ry Cooder) Blue City, Warner Bros., 1986.
(Chris Stamey Group) Christmas Time, Coyote, 1986.
(True Believers) True Believers, EMI America, 1986.
(Joe 'King' Carrasco Y Las Coronas) Bandido Rock, Rounder, 1986.
(Mud Boy and the Neutrons) Known Felons in Drag, New Rose, 1986.
(Green on Red) Killer Inside Me, Mercury, 1987.
(The Replacements) Pleased to Meet Me, Sire, 1987.
(Tav Falco's Panther Burns) World We Knew, New Rose, 1987; Triple X, 1994.
(Toots and the Maytals) Toots in Memphis, Mango, 1988.
(Weddings, Parties, Anything) The Big Don't Argue, WEA, 1989.
(Green On Red) Here Comes the Snakes, Restless, 1989.
(Gun Bunnies) Paw Paw Patch, Virgin, 1989.
(Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper) Root Hog or Die, IRS, 1989.
(Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper) Otis, Enigma, 1990.
(Barrence Whitfield & the Savages) Let's Lose It, Stony Plain, 1990.
(Dash Rip Rock) Not of This World, Mammoth, 1990. (The Radiators) Total Evaporation, Epic, 1990.
(Flat Duo Jets) Go Go Harlem Baby, Sky, 1991.
(Toy Caldwell) Toy Caldwell, Cabin Fever, 1992.
(The Dick Nixons) Paint the White House Black, Triple X, 1992.
(Mud Boy and the Neutrons) Streets at Dawn, New Rose, 1993.
(Tav Falco & Panther Burns) Deep in the Shadows, Marilyn, 1994.
(True Believers) Hard Road, Rykodisc, 1994.
(Ry Cooder) The Very Best of Ry Cooder, Warner Bros., 1994.
(God Street Wine) $1.99 Romances, Eleven, 1994.
(G. Love & Special Sauce) Coast to Coast Motel, Okeh/Epic, 1995.
(Mud Boy and the Neutrons) Negroes Walk Among Us, Koch, 1995.
(Jan Krist) Curious Dead Man Walking, Silent, 1996.
(Calvin Russell) Calvin Russell, Last Call, 1997.
(Clawhammer) Hold Your Tongue (And Say Apple), Inter-scope, 1997.
(Texas Tornados) Little Bit is Better Than Nada, Reprise, 1997.
(Tommy Hoehn) Of Moons and Fools, Frankenstein, 1997.
(Calvin Russell) Soldier, Last Call, 1997.
(Screamin' Jay Hawkins) At Last, Last Call, 1998.
(Magic Cropdusters) Goshen, HTS, 1998.
(Mudhoney) Tomorrow Hit Today, Reprise, 1998.
(Wedding, Parties, Anything) Trophy Night: The Best of Weddings, Parties, Anything, Mushroom, 1998.
(Screamin' Jay Hawkins) Live at the Olympia, Paris, Last Call, 1999.
(Calvin Russell) Sam, Last Call, 1999.
(Steve Forbert) Evergreen Boy, Koch, 2000.
(Royal Fingerbowl) Greyhound Afternoons, TVT, 2000.
(Mudhoney) March to Fuzz, Sub Pop, 2000.
(Alvin Youngblood Hart) Start With the Soul, Rykodisc, 2000.
(Toots & the Maytals) 20th Century Masters—The Millenium Collection, Universal, 2000.
(North Mississippi Allstars) Phantom 51, Uni/Tone, 2001.
(Willie Deville) Horse of a Different Color, Import, 2001.
(Rod Piazza & His Might Flyers) Beyond the Source, Tone-Cool, 2001.
(James Mathus & His Knockdown Society) National Antiseptic, Mammoth, 2001.
(T-Model Ford) Bad Man, Fat Possum, 2002.
(Alvin Youngblood Hart) Down in the Alley, Memphis International, 2002.
(Harmonica Frank Floyd) Missing Link, Memphis International, 2002.
(John Eddie) Who the Hell is John Eddie?, Lost Highway, 2003.
(Tarbox Ramblers) A Fix Bast East, Rounder, 2004.
(Perfect) Once, Twice, Three Times a Maybe, Rykodisc, 2004.
(Zolar X) Timeless, Alternative Tentacles, 2004.
(North Mississippi Allstars) Electric Blue Watermelon, Ato, 2005.
(Scott Miller & the Commonwealth) Citation, Sugar Hill, 2006.
Escott, Colin, and Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin' Tonight—Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Floyd, John, and Dave Marsh, editors, Sun Records—An Oral History, Avon Books, 1998.
Gordon, Robert, It Came From Memphis, Pocket Books, 1995.
McCloud, Bruce, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigree, 1995.
Nash, Alanna, Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, Knopf, 1988.
Olsen, Eric, Paul Verna, and Carlo Wolff, editors, The Encyclopedia of Record Producers—An Indispensable Guide to the Most Important Record Producers in Music History, Billboard Books, 1999.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin's Griffin, 2000.
"Dickinson's Latest is All in the Family," Memphis Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com (June 2, 2006).
"Home Cooking: Jim Dickinson Interview," Furious.com, http://www.furious.com/perfect/jimdickinson.html (June 2, 2006).
"Jim Dickinson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com. (July 4, 2006).
"Jim Dickinson: A Different Stripe by Alan diPerna," Harp Magazine, http://www.harpmagazine.com/articles/detail.cf-m?article_id=2708 (June 2, 2006).
"Mojo Man," Memphis Magazine, http://www.memphismagaine.com/backissues.march2000/featurehtm (June 2, 2006).
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