Jim Dickinson (1940/41* — 2009)
is a prolific musician, songwriter and producer who grew up with the Delta
traditions of jug band
music and the Blues
. Born James Luther Dickinson
in Little Rock, Arkansas
, he spent the first nine years of his life in Chicago
and all points in between before putting down roots in Memphis
. After attending Baylor University
as a student of theatre
, one of his earliest recordings was as singer and pianist on the Jesters' "Cadillac Man", a hallowed rockabilly
single released on Memphis' Sun Records
A longtime staple of the Memphis music scene, Dickinson helmed sessions for successive generations of cult heroes spanning from Screamin' Jay Hawkins to The Cramps to The Replacements, additionally lending his keyboard talents to recordings from Ry Cooder, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Sam and Dave, Los Lobos, Steve Vai and many others. Dickinson began his career during the mid-'60s, emerging as a sought-after session player through recordings with everyone from Petula Clark to Arlo Guthrie to the Flamin' Groovies.
In 1971, Dickinson appeared on the Stones' classic Sticky Fingers, and that same year collaborated with Cooder on Into the Purple Valley, the first in a series of solo albums and soundtracks with the famed guitarist. In 1972, Dickinson issued his first solo LP, Dixie Fried (produced by Tom Dowd), which was widely acclaimed by critics as a definitive statement in contemporary Memphis Delta blues. Around that time he also formed local band Mud Boy and the Neutrons, with whom he has recorded over a career spanning two decades. He was also a member of the Dixie Flyers session group, alongside Jerry Wexler.
Much of Dickinson's reputation rests on his 1974 production of Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, the pioneering Memphis power-pop group's abortive final masterpiece - a record which both literally and figuratively captures the sound of a band falling apart. The album was not issued in anything close to its intended form until 1992 (Rykodisc), and its status as an underground classic nevertheless assured through years of unauthorized releases. His work with former Big Star frontman Alex Chilton continued on 1979's disastrous Like Flies on Sherbert; the hipster cachet of both projects made Dickinson a sought-after producer among a new generation of bands.
Throughout the 1980s his credit appeared on albums from the likes of Jason and the Scorchers, Chris Stamey, Green on Red, Mojo Nixon, True Believers, Toots Hibbert and most notably, The Replacements, whose 1987 release Pleased to Meet Me included their song "Alex Chilton." Dickinson remained active in the years to follow, working with the likes of Primal Scream, Mudhoney, and Rocket from the Crypt.
In the celluloid realm, Dickinson has scored or contributed his musical talents to many films, including Gimme Shelter, Crossroads, Streets Of Fire, The Long Riders, Stroker Ace, Paris, Texas and Brewster's Millions. Despite his illustrious career, Dickinson is still unable to read music, having suffered from a "multiple sight" condition since childhood.
Personal Notes: I met Jim Dickinson in the spring of 1992 at Ardent Studios in Memphis. I was there in the capacity of publisher and quasi-manager for an artist named Tommy Hoehn, and we had hired Dickinson to produce five of Hoehn's songs with a bevy of talented session players from Memphis and Nashville. I remember my first impression of Jim rather vividly: he was rather heavy-set at the time, with long unkempt black hair and a beard. He looked like a roadie from the Black Crowes, wearing Birkenstocks, smoking pot like a chimney, and - well, having a European sense of hygiene.
When he entered the studio, it was like God had shuffled into the room. His reputation preceeded him by miles, and all the artists there to record were a little awe-struck. The only people not terrible impressed by his presence were Jody Stephens and John Fry at Ardent, since Jim and them had a long history of working together. When recording began, Jim's talent and experience were immediately evident. His direction and ear for "the sound" was amazing, and it was thrilling to watch him work. He knew exactly what he wanted and exactly how to make it happen.
As he gave instructions to the AMS Neve mixing board engineer, Jim would often lie on the floor of the control room on his back, smoking a joint while positioned equally between the monitors, describing which elements of the mix needed to be raised or lowered as he reviewed each subsequent track of the song that was being recorded. I had never watched a music producer work quite like this before, and it struck me that the truly artistic elements of creating art are often achieved in ways that fall outside the traditional paradigm of businesslike behavior.
I can't say that I got to know Jim very well, as he was there to do his job and get paid, and very little else. Still, I quickly developed a respect for him and his methods by watching him work, and the studio master of the songs that Jim mixed were nothing short of incredible. I will never forget sitting there observing him work one afternoon as I held and examined the master tapes of several Big Star songs from Third/Sister Lovers that had been brought out of the Ardent archives, and thinking to myself, I am one lucky son of a bitch!
Epigraph: "When I was a painter, my most successful paintings I left outside and let them get rained on. The ones that weren't so successful I just gave away, but my most successful ones rotted, returned to leaves and twigs. I'm just interested in decomposition. I want to be buried in New Orleans, because it's the only place in America that lets you rot." - Jim Dickinson
* Available sources conflict on Dickinson's year of birth
Jason Ankeny (All Music Guide)
R. J. Smith, muze/excite.com