Remembering Jim Dickinson

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I've said goodbye to a lot of cultural heavyweights and big personal influences over the last few years: Otha Turner, Ike Turner, Rev. Gatemouth Moore, Ernest Withers. I've also been mourning my father, who died in 2007. Now I've got yet another name to add to the list.

Now I have to ponder a Memphis without Jim Dickinson in it. He could be fierce — he once described producing as "pushing a band off a cliff and taking a picture as they crash to the ground" — and he was often unrepentant in his declarations about other producers and fellow musicians. Yet he was also a link to the wild-and-wooly mid-20th century river town that Robert Gordon so aptly documented in It Came From Memphis — a world I'll never know, save through the moments captured on studio tape.

As a journalist, I considered myself incredibly lucky to be able to call up Dickinson and quiz him on any number of topics. He was a raconteur who yielded hours of commentary that I plied into articles for the Memphis Flyer, MOJO, and more. He could provide the technicolor details on legendary Aretha Franklin and Rolling Stones sessions in Muscle Shoals, and educate me about relative unknowns like Chicago radio personality Two Ton Baker the Music Maker and Bill Harris, the bandleader on The Jack Benny Show. His gravelly voice would hypnotize me as he spun yarns about the buffalo trails which evolved into modern-day Union Avenue, or meticulously detailed the size of the jar of pickled pigs feet that Aretha once dropped on a hotel lobby floor.

In a typical flash of curmudgeonly brilliance, Dickinson once told me, "I was always looking for something beyond the music — the beauty, the mystery, whatever it was. And all of these people had something that went beyond just music: philosophic depth. That stuff was really hard to come by, so as a result, when you did find it, you thought you'd found the Rosetta Stone. This is the key to arcane knowledge. I feel sorry for the kids who have to download these little pieces of shit from their computers, and this is the art that's supposed to represent their lives! Back when I was young, you had to reach for the culture that you're trying to identify with!"

I also got to know Jim and Mary Lindsay, his wife, through my friendship with their sons, Luther and Cody. In the mid-1990s, I co-released a slab of vinyl called Hambone's Meditations that featured one of Jim's tracks, "Cut Me at 7 and a Half." And, as recently as this spring, I produced a documentary short on Cody for the Commercial Appeal that featured Jim in a small role.

Luther sent me an email this weekend, entitled "Daddy's Last Words":

I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle of more than I ever expected or deserved. I have gone farther and done more than I had any right to expect. I leave behind a beautiful family and many beloved friends. Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night. I will not be gone as long as the music lingers. I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold. It has been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres. May we all meet again at the end of the trail. May God bless and keep you.

World boogie is coming,
James Luther Dickinson

Meanwhile, the accolades for Dickinson, who died Saturday, August 15th, continue to pour in.

Here's an obit from Malcolm Jones that appeared in Newsweek, memories from former Radiants frontman Randy Haspel, an oral history by Joe Nick Patoski, and a piece by Chuck Prophet.

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