Born: November 15, 1941 in Little Rock AR
Died: August 15, 2009 in Memphis TN
One of the unheralded MVPs of rock, soul, and blues music, James Luther "Jim" Dickinson was a gifted songwriter, musician, and producer who helped shape some of the most important music of the 20th century. A Memphis native who thrived in the city's melting pot of blues, R&B, rockabilly, and gospel, Dickinson took it all in, and not only managed to impart this distinctive musical flavor to his own infrequent recordings, but also to those that he produced. His sons Luther and Cody Dickinson inherited their father's musical gifts, forming the influential blues-rock outfit the North Mississippi Allstars.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas Dickinson moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee at an early age. Attending college at Baylor University, Dickinson dabbled in music while at school, but upon returning to Memphis in the early-1960s, he planned a career as a history teacher. His part-time performances with Delta bluesmen like Furry Lewis prompted his wife to urge him to pursue music as a career. Dickinson would become an in-demand session player, playing with early rockers like Bill Justis and the Jesters.
Dickinson formed the Dixie Flyers in the late-1960s with a group of Memphis musicians, becoming the Atlantic Records house band and performing on recordings by blues, soul, and roots-rock artists like Aretha Franklin, Billy Lee Riley, Albert Collins, and Sam and Dave. The band was encouraged by the label to record an album, which would instead become Dickinson's 1972 solo debut, Dixie Fried. A curious mix of raw Delta blues, country twang, and Southern boogie-rock, Dixie Fried accomplished little commercially, but would become a cult favorite in the years to follow.
Producer & Piano Player
During the 1970s, Dickinson moved behind the board and began working as a producer. His work on the Memphis cult band Big Star's final album, Third, would make Dickinson a cult figure himself, and he would also producer Big Star frontman Alex Chilton's Like Flies On Sherbert album in 1979. Any band that wanted a bit of Dickinson's Memphis magic would sojourn to the Bluff City, and Dickinson would produce albums by Jason & the Scorchers, Willy DeVille, Mojo Nixon, Green On Red, the Replacements, and Screaming Jay Hawkins, among many others.
Dickinson remained a sought-after session musician during the 1970s as well, and you can hear his piano work on songs as varied (and successful) as the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and the Flamin' Groovies' "Teenage Head," as well as albums by Petula Clark, Maria Muldaur, Delaney and Bonnie, and Jamaican reggae star Toots Hibbert. During this time Dickinson also began a collaboration with noted slide-guitarist Ry Cooder, contributing to 1971's Into The Purple Valley, the first of several albums and soundtracks that the two artists created together.
Mud Boy and the Neutrons
During the late-70s, Dickinson formed the band Mud Boy & the Neutrons with bluesmen area Sid Selvidge, Lee Baker, and Jimmy Crosthwait. Pursuing a unique idea of swamp-blues, folk, country, and gospel music, the band recorded three albums during the 1980s for France's New Rose Records.
Although Mud Boy and the Neutrons never toured, preferring to locate their infrequent live performances at home in Memphis, they would influence a generation of local musicians who would form bands like Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Reigning Sound, and the Dickinson brothers' North Mississippi All-Stars. The band broke up with the death of Baker in 1996, but the surviving members regrouped for a 2005 performance.
Dickinson's Later Years
Dickinson stayed busy throughout the late-80s and 1990s, releasing a second solo album, Free Beer Tomorrow in 2002, and producing albums from such diverse artists as Seattle's Mudhoney, Doug Sahm's Texas Tornados, Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford, and acoustic bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart. He also lent his distinctive piano sound to Bob Dylan for his 1997 "comeback" album, Time Out Of Mind.
Through the years, Dickinson contributed to his son's North Mississippi Allstars project as both a producer and piano player, often under the pseudonym "East Memphis Slim." In 2006, Dickinson was backed by his sons for this roots-rock and R&B set, Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, and he released a collection of pre-rock standards called Dinosaurs Run In Circles in early 2009. Working virtually right until his hospitalization for heart problems, Dickinson performed with the band Snake Eyes, which included several younger veterans of the Memphis rock scene.
Recommended Albums: Dickinson's recorded output is sparse and sometimes hard to find, but of a consistent quality and entertainment value for the blues, rock, and soul fan. Dixie Fried, where it all began, is a fascinating collection of music, but Free Beer Tomorrow remains Dickinson's best-known and loved work.
Jim Dickinson - Select Discography
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- Dixie Fried (Atlantic Records, 1972)
- A Thousand Footprints In The Sand w/Chuck Prophet (Last Call, 1997)
- Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis Records, 2002)
- Jungle Jim And The Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International Records, 2006)
- Killers From Space (Memphis International Records, 2007)
- Dinosaurs Run In Circles (Memphis International Records, 2009)