In the early seventies, when we used to hang out at Phillips Recording
Service on Madison, Jim Dickinson told me the secret to gaining
prominence in music: "The best way to make it in the music business," he said, "is to start
a good rumor about yourself." That's why I took such delight in watching him create the "East Memphis Slim" persona he continued to develop. He became the authentic white boy with the blues, with a sardonic sense of humor and the willingness to step out on a limb for his art. Yet, he still had the intellectual honesty to once tell an interviewer, "We all learned it from the yard man." Sometime after his work with various Memphis bands and his stint as house keyboardist for Atlantic Records at Criteria Studios in Miami, Jim's ever-expanding credits as a producer became so impressive and his expertise and keen ear so desired by a new generation of musicians that the reality simply overran the rumor.
Jim based his theory on Mac Rebennack, a New Orleans keyboardist, who labored for years in anonymity before creating the Voodoo High Priest, Dr. John the Night Tripper and rocketing to recording stardom. Jim turned me on to that record in 1967, and when the opening notes of the title track began, he said excitedly, "Listen to that. That's a cane flute," displaying his fondness for esoteric instruments. That was the year I worked with him on our single recording project at the old Ardent Studio in John Fry's garage on National. Before Led Zeppelin, before Cream, even before Moloch, Jim had the idea to record some white-boy, electric blues, in contrast with the pop fare of the day. He recruited Sam the Sham's drummer, Jerry Patterson, Fred Hester on stand-up bass, and Lee Baker on lead guitar. Jim produced and played piano. Even though I was away at college and had been absent from the Memphis scene for a year, I was honored that Jim chose me to sing. It was one of those sessions that was deferred then abandoned for one reason or another. I bugged Jim about it for a year or so, but recording tape was too expensive to save something that you weren't going to use.
When Jim crossed paths with Sam Phillips, he took his credo to heart: "If you're not doing something different, then you're not doing anything." As a record producer, Jim became the true disciple of Phillips, both in his approach to recording and the talent he chose to work with. Jim, always prepared with a quote, once wisely said: "The best songs don't get recorded; the best recordings don't get released; and the best releases don't get played." For his own production career, Jim also adopted Phillip's: "Crazy is often good."
I'm dating myself, but it seems like only yesterday when Jim and Mary Lindsay Dickinson lived off White Station Road and entertained a group of Bohemians, hipsters, bluesmen, musicians, and magicians in their living room nightly. There was very little recording going on in Memphis once the famous labels closed, but the camaraderie among artists was such that it's strange how some of your fondest memories arise from times when you believed you were suffering the most. I valued Jim's opinion so much that, like a little brother, I still sought his approval for whatever I was doing musically.
Jim would tell you what he thought and was not one to idly hand out compliments. That's why receiving one from him meant so much. I participated in a garage band reunion a couple of years ago. I did some shtick that was a throwback to the old soul revues when the singer would chime, "I once heard a friend of mine say ..." and then sing snippets of various artists' songs. On the changeover, I was walking offstage, and Jim was stepping up when he said, "Hey man, that was great." Those few words made my night. Some time later, I got a call from David Less, whose label released Jim's albums. He said Jim wanted to know if I'd be interested in coming down to Mississippi and singing some backup on his latest solo effort. I sang harmony vocals on one song, and when I was done, Jim wrote me a check. "What's this?" I asked. "You're actually going to pay me?" Jim laughed and said, "That's the way we do it these days." I reminded him of our 1967 recordings and told him how pleased I was that it only took him 40 years to call me back. But I would have done it for free.
I can see by the way the North Mississippi Allstars have conducted their careers thus far that Cody and Luther's parents taught them well. Aside from his extraordinary talent, the other quality Jim had in abundance was integrity. He leaves a void in the vanguard of contemporary music production that is impossible to fill. Even after I heard he was in ill health and had bypass surgery, I assumed if anyone could kick a heart attack's ass, it would be Jim. The man had an air of invincibility about him. His "East Memphis Slim" creation had come full circle, and he was gaining the respect he desired as a producer with every passing day. It was as if he was almost where he wanted to be. Not quite, but almost. A whole generation, raised on the '50s music played by Dewey Phillips and Rufus Thomas and with an appreciation for the absurd and the eccentric, is beginning to fade from view. Jim has already achieved legendary status with a generation of musicians inspired by his adventurous productions. For many more who knew him well or those who only knew him by reputation, the loss of James Luther Dickinson is like losing a piece of Memphis itself. =