Memphis Legend Jim Dickinson: 1941-2009
Published Aug 18, 2009One of pillars of the post-Sun Records Memphis music scene, Jim Dickinson, died Saturday (August 15) at the city's Methodist University Hospital as a result of complications from a triple bypass heart surgery. Along with his sons Luther and Cody of the North Mississippi Allstars, Dickinson leaves behind a remarkable musical legacy that directly impacted the careers of everyone from the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to Big Star and the Replacements.
Born James Luther Dickinson in 1941, he began playing in bands at an early age, primarily on piano, and made his first significant recorded appearance on "Cadillac Man" by the Jesters, released on Sun in 1966. Concurrently, Dickinson became involved in many aspects of Memphis culture, most notably the rediscovery of aging Memphis blues legends such as Furry Lewis, who in the mid-1960s was a street sweeper. Dickinson's varied talents soon made him a familiar face in all the major recording studios in and around Memphis, and in 1969 he was in the right place at the right time when, during sessions for Sticky Fingers at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, the Rolling Stones enlisted him to play piano on "Wild Horses." The other song recorded at that session, Rev. Robert Wilkins's "You Gotta Move," also bears Dickinson's unmistakable stamp in its arrangement.
By then Dickinson was a member of the Dixie Flyers, intended to be a cross between Led Zeppelin and the Band, but which ultimately made its mark backing Atlantic Records artists when the label's interest shifted away from Memphis to Criteria Studios in Miami. Among their notable recordings is Aretha Franklin's Spirit in the Dark, released in 1970. This was also the band that formed the core of Dickinson's first solo album, 1972's Dixie Fried, which included unhinged covers of Bob Dylan's "John Brown" and the Carl Perkins-penned title track.
Dickinson's knack at staying on just the right side of lunacy - a trait that could be traced back to his theatre experience - came in handy in 1974 when he began work with Alex Chilton on what was to be the third Big Star album, arbitrarily entitled Sister Lovers. The sessions were by all accounts chaotic, and a myth about the album steadily grew after every major record company initially rejected it. However, once released on CD in 1992 by Rykodisc, it was widely hailed as Chilton's masterpiece. Dickinson and Chilton would team up again for the even more iconoclastic Like Flies on Sherbet, first released in 1979.
In the late '70s, Dickinson formed a new band called Mud Boy and the Neutrons, which would go on to release three albums between 1986 and 1995, while at the same time recording with Ry Cooder on his acclaimed soundtracks for The Long Riders and later Paris, Texas.
Dickinson also continued to produce a wide range of artists throughout the 1980s, including many from outside Memphis who were more than willing to travel to the city just to work with him. Among these were the Replacements, whose 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me included the song "Alex Chilton." Ten years later, Mudhoney hired Dickinson for Tomorrow Hit Today, the last album featuring founding bassist Matt Lukin.
In 1997, Dickinson was called back to Miami at the behest of none other than Bob Dylan, contributing piano to the Daniel Lanois-produced Time out of Mind. When accepting a Grammy for the album, Dylan acknowledged Dickinson, calling him "my brother." With the help of his sons, Dickinson completed his second solo album in 2002, Free Beer Tomorrow, a worthy follow-up to Dixie Fried in terms of sheer eclecticism.
Despite his failing health, Dickinson kept working steadily over the past five years, even joining another new band, Snake Eyes, in 2007, who have reportedly two completed albums set for release. While these may have to stand as Jim Dickinson's final recordings, his impact on rock and roll will live on as long as the spirit of the music does.