Jim Dickinson
Courtesy of John Fry/Ardent Studios

Jim Dickinson

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.

Born:
November 15, 1941
Died:
August 15, 2009
Roles:
Producer and Piano Player
Produced:
Jason & the Scorchers, Willy DeVille, Mojo Nixon, Green On Red, the Replacements, and Screaming Jay Hawkins and many more

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 Rocked Hard.

Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection, Photo by Jim Marshall

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.

Jim and the Band Jim and the Band
Photos Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection

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.

Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection, © David Gahr

Jim produced "Into the Purple Valley" and "Boomer's Story" for Ry Cooder. During that time Ry introduced Jim to Arlo Guthrie. Jim subsequently toured with Arlo and played piano on Arlo's "City of New Orleans." 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.

Like the Stones, they extended the connection between blues and rock and roll, but the British learned from the records, and Mud Boy learned from the players.

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.

Mud Boy
Photo Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection

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 —

  • The Replacements,
  • Mojo Nixon,
  • Green on Red,
  • Alvin Youngblood Hart,
  • Toots Hibbert,
  • Screaming Jay Hawkins,
  • Jason & the Scorchers,
  • Lucero,
  • Jimbo Mathus,
  • Mudhoney,
  • The True Believers,
  • and the Texas Tornados
Jim on Stage

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.)

Photo Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection

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.

No doubt the sudden output was propelled by the synchronicity he felt when recording with Luther and Cody. He often referred to his sons as his greatest productions.

Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection, Photo by Ebet Roberts

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.

Courtesy Dickinson Family Collection

What Others are Saying

  1. I became friends with Jim in the 4th grade @ White Station school and rode my bike to his house every mth. To read Tarzan before it hit the drug store shelf. He started a gang called The Raber Gabers ,I think I’m the only one left. Our friendship never faded. I remember Bill Newport Jim and I recording in his bedroom in the 60s ,Jim on guitar bill on a nail leg &me singing into a miked mop bucket I thought I was Howlin Wolf .

    Danny Graflund
  2. Jim was a good friend of Greg Hiskey who I played music with for over 20 years. Jim produced the Neon Wheels lp and played piano on Rhythm Method’s “Run Run Rudolph” single Great man, gentle soul. RIP Jim Dickinson. Gone but not forgetten for sure!

    Bill H from Memphis

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