One of the unfortunate by-products of a city with an illustrious music heritage is losing so many of the people who forged that history. Memphis is too accustomed to bidding farewell to greatness. In the past decade alone, the city has said goodbye to titans such as Sam Phillips, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes, among many others. Just a couple of weeks ago, rockabilly firebrand Billy Lee Riley passed on. And now, Jim Dickinson, the city's beloved musician, producer, and unofficial cultural historian, died in his sleep on Saturday, August 15th, while recuperating from heart surgery. He was 67.
Maybe Dickinson's shadow doesn't loom as large over pop history as Phillips', Thomas', and Hayes', but in many ways his loss feels even heavier locally because his importance wasn't just historical but intensely current.
Dickinson was fortunate enough to walk in the footsteps of giants, witnessing the final days of many of Memphis' blues and jugband greats, whose sound and spirit he was instrumental in keeping alive for subsequent generations.
He got his own start in the city's active mid-sixties garage-band scene, recording at Sun during the label's waning days, and went on to be a signature figure in the city's emerging alternative scene via his own Mudboy & the Neutrons and his production work on Big Star's Third. Through the years, he contributed as a producer or sideman to many classic recordings, among them the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind.
But unlike most figures in Memphis music history, Dickinson got better and became more prolific with age. He recorded only a handful of solo albums in his life, but most of them were from the past decade, the last three of them — 2006's Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, 2007's Killers From Space, and 2009's Dinosaurs Run in Circles — in a fruitful partnership with local producer/label-owner David Less.
This late-life burst of music established Dickinson as one of the great, charismatic reservoirs of American song, a figure who deserves to be mentioned as such alongside the likes of Dylan and Willie Nelson.
Beyond his own work, Dickinson was as much a godfather and guiding presence for the modern Memphis music scene as anyone. In addition to raising his own sons, Luther and Cody, who became crucial figures in Memphis music, and producing some of their band the North Mississippi Allstars' albums, Dickinson helped guide the likes of Alvin Youngblood Hart (Start With the Soul), Lucero (Nobody's Darlings), and Amy LaVere (Anchors & Anvils). His influence among much of the best of modern Memphis music is extensive.
Another reason Dickinson's loss is so hard to take is that he was known so widely, fondly, and intimately within today's cultural community.
I did not know Dickinson as well as many, but I had several conversations with him over the past decade — all of them memorable, all of them instructive, all of them enjoyable, all of them now treasured.
No one who had the pleasure of talking to Dickinson — or even hearing him speak — could forget it. In that way, he was very much like Phillips or Thomas or the late Memphis historian Shelby Foote. His wit, heart, insight, and fierce love for his home region were palpable in everything he did or said. Like those men, he was a community treasure.
Dickinson's final album, the intimate and personal Dinosaurs Run in Circles, which ends with Dickinson's lovely rumination on "When You Wish Upon a Star," is a fitting testament. (The track concludes with Dickinson asserting, so correctly, "That's pretty nice.") But I find myself returning to Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger, recorded with his sons and many of the young local musicians he so inspired. At the end, Dickinson gives the spotlight to his eldest son, Luther, for a series of lyrical Brazilian guitar runs on "Samba de Orfeo." "Play it, Luther," the old man commands. And his son does. Dickinson comes back in to hum the song's melody. The moment is generous, beautiful, real. Just like the man himself.