embodied the spirit of independence in Memphis music, and he became a godfather and an inspiration for several generations of Memphis artists — musical, literary, and cinematic.
Jim was raised on rock and roll, and rock and roll was what he preached — both the music and the attitude. More than simply defiant, Jim was ever questioning, challenging the status quo and digging for a deeper understanding — of actions, of interpretations, of decisions. A musician —he sang, played piano, guitar, and lots more — he was also a record producer, a songwriter, and creator of movie scores. Jim was about thinking outside the musical staff, but in tune.
Jim was a student of history and of the theater, both of which dovetailed with his growing up in Memphis. He was of the generation that was directly and immediately influenced by Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, and Sun Records—a generation Jim called the “witnesses,” the Memphis audience who felt the tremors and aftershocks of rock and roll’s quake. With the Jesters, Jim recorded one of the last rocking records for Sun, “Cadillac Man,” shouting the vocals and pounding the piano.
Sun engineer Bill Justis brought him to Nashville for an album session. There, Jim began his lifelong affair with the studio, exploring its possibilities in the documentation and manipulation of recorded sound. In the mid-1960s, he fell in with the nascent Ardent Studio in Memphis, honing his skills as an engineer and songwriter. He was instrumental in the 1960s blues revival, working with the surviving original blues musicians on live shows and in the studio; he studied their techniques and their attitudes, and became close friends with Furry Lewis, Johnny Woods, and several others.
Through playing sessions around town, he became part of a group that Jerry Wexler invited to Miami to be the house band at his “Atlantic South” Criteria Studio. Calling themselves the Dixie Flyers, they backed a wide array of stars—Aretha Franklin on her Grammy-nominated Spirit In The Dark; Albert Collins, Carmen McCrae, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Hank Ballard among many. Jim’s first solo album, Dixie Fried, was a thrilling blend of country, blues, and rock and roll, a fitting cap to his relationship with Atlantic.
Not long after, he played piano on Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans,” where he became friendly with Ry Cooder, landing the job as producer on Cooder’s next two albums, Into the Purple Valley and Boomer’s Story. His blues connections were evident in the work with Cooder; when the Rolling Stones came south, Jim played piano on “Wild Horses.”
In 1972, after Atlantic, Jim joined with folk musician Sid Selvidge, blues-rocker Lee Baker, and puppeteer-percussionist Jimmy Crosthwait to form Mud Boy and the Neutrons.
Unlike the Stones, Mud Boy sought obscurity—and succeeded; aside from contributing occasional tracks to albums by others, they didn’t record until 1986, their 14th year as a group; only one more album followed, and not for seven more years. Their live performances were also infrequent, and legendary.
In 1974, Alex Chilton tapped Jim to produce songs he was creating in the wake of disappointment over the commercial failure of his Big Star albums. Bringing his accumulated knowledge from theater, recording, and history, Jim pushed the studio’s possibilities, creating the landmark Big Star 3rd album. The experimentation and rule-breaking continued in the next collaboration with Chilton, Like Flies On Sherbert, cementing Jim’s reputation for pulling art from chaos.
Artists from the margins sought him —
Though punk rock could have ostracized many classic Memphis musicians, Jim heard ways to meld the old with the new. On recordings with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, a punkabilly band striving to be something a bit more organized, Jim added former Stax artists (especially hornmen Andrew Love, Ben Cauley, and Wayne Jackson), and also other great-but-hardly-working players.
From his youth, when he heard pianist Two-Ton Baker the Music Maker accompany himself while reading the news on the radio, Jim appreciated music’s potential to contribute color and emotion. This aspect was most evident in his work on movie soundtracks, often in collaboration with Ry Cooder. Their Paris, Texas soundtrack is a career highlight, a minimum of instruments and sound evoking a vast physical and emotional landscape.
For The Border soundtrack, Jim wrote lyrics to “Across the Borderline,” a song of hope that was soon recorded by Cooder, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. (Bob Dylan made him part of the core recording band for his Grammy-winning album Time Out Of Mind, released in 1997.)
Beginning in 1989, Jim began performing, and soon recording, with his two sons—Luther on guitar and Cody on drums. As the kids immersed themselves in their father’s work, they began exploring the Mississippi and blues culture all around them, soon forming the North Mississippi All Stars, with Jim producing several of their albums. In the 2000s, he released a flurry of five newly recorded CDs, plus a spoken word album.
Jim Dickinson inspired other artists to stay in Memphis (and environs) while pursuing their international aspirations. He demonstrated that it was possible to create the music you wanted without conceding to coastal, industrial demands. In fact, those goals could be achieved more easily outside the company towns of Los Angeles and New York, where many of the greats often made questionable music and wound up deep in debt to the company store. Jim Dickinson remained a beacon for artistic integrity all his life, and beyond his untimely death in 2009. He wrote his own epitaph:
“I’m just dead, I’m not gone,”
and indeed, he remains an inspiration to this day.