The legendary Memphis musician, producer, and raconteur James Luther Dickinson died this past Saturday in a Memphis hospital after complications following triple bypass heart surgery; he was 67. Dickinson played with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ry Cooder and The Rolling Stones and helped shape what would be called the Memphis Sound, a gritty blend of gospel, country and southern blues. Though never exactly a household name, Dickinson is one those great cult figures in musical history whose life and stories were bigger than the times themselves.
Jim Dickinson was born November 15, 1941 in Little Rock, Arkansas. His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1949. He signed his first recording contract right out of high school with Rubin Cherry's Home of the Blues. Later Dickinson recorded for Sam Phillips' Sun label; he sang lead vocals on the last record ever released on Sun, "Cadillac Man" by The Jesters. Starting in about 1965 he began working as a session player in the Memphis studios, joining Charley Freeman, Tommy McClure, and Sammy Creason in the rhythm section that would become know as the Dixie Flyers. They went on to be the house band at Atlantic Records' Criteria Recording Studio in Miami, Florida in the early '70s, backing artists like Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ronnie Milsap, Kris Kristofferson, Carmen McCrae and Maria Muldaur.
He played piano on the Rolling Stones' classic "Wild Horses" and even appeared in the documentary film of the Stones, Gimme Shelter. Dickinson also played piano on The Flamin' Groovies masterpiece Teenage Head. He went on to be Ry Cooder's sidekick; touring, playing keyboards and co-producing some of Cooder’s soundtracks such as Paris, Texas, The Long Riders, and Crossroads. Dickinson's career as a producer got kick started working with Big Star, the pioneering Memphis power pop band, producing one of the most influential albums from the 1970s, Third/Sister Lovers (NME magazine ranked it #1 as the most heartbreaking album ever recorded). His production work with Big Star led to other gigs, sometimes under the moniker East Memphis Slim. In the 1970’s and 80’s Dickinson produced the likes of The Replacements (Dickinson always said he learned more from them than they learned from him), Jason & the Scorchers, Green on Red, The Radiators, Mojo Nixon, Chris Stamey, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Mudhoney, Alex Chilton, Toots Hibbert (of the Maytals), The Texas Tornados, Steve Forbert, G. Love & Special Sauce, Joe "King" Carrasco, Flat Duo Jets, Tav Falco, and many others. As a session musician, he's worked with Los Lobos, Primal Scream, Poi Dog Pondering, Arlo Guthrie, Willy DeVille, Esther Phillips, Delaney and Bonnie, Petula Clark, Rocket From the Crypt, and Bob Dylan (Dylan acknowledged him as a “brother” while accepting the Grammy award for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and once said, "If you've got Dickinson, you don't need anybody else.").
One of my all-time favorite records is Dickinson's first solo album, released in 1972 on Atlantic and entitled Dixie Fried. This soulful yet wonderfully cockeyed, twisted and loopy album has become a cult classic. He dubbed the genre “world boogie.” Dixie Fried was one of those records that disappeared without a trace upon initial release, only to be rediscovered years later. Originally recorded in 1970, the out there in left-field amalgamation of country, R&B, soul, and rock finds Dickinson mostly covering other artist’s material, but everything he touches shimmers with that cool and greasy Memphis groove -- probably why Atlantic Records saw it unfit for public consumption for a couple of years. By the time it came out, Dickinson was off touring with Ry Cooder and had no time nor desire to promote the album. Dickinson said that by mid 70’s he was seriously hated over at Atlantic records. They tried pushing him out the door, giving him what was referred to as "the Jesse Ed Davis treatment," or to quote Jerry Wexler, "right down the old pipe, baby." For years Dixie Fried circulated around the underground, developing a extraordinary following. But as far as Atlantic was concerned, the album’s notoriety was surely due to some bizarre bayou voodoo; the label kept its distance. Finally in 2002 it was re-released on CD by Sepia Tone Records.
Last month, Jim Dickinson was relocated to a rehabilitation facility; doctors had hoped for an eventual recovery. His death comes only a week after a benefit concert and tribute was held in Memphis at The Peabody Skyway to raise money for escalating medical bills. Performers at the benefit included John Hiatt, Jimmy Davis and the Grammy-nominated North Mississippi Allstars, whose members include Dickinson's sons Luther and Cody. Dickinson always understood the enduring power of music and that is mirrored in his epitaph he wrote himself: “I’m just dead, I’m not gone.”
James Luther Dickinson is survived by his wife Mary and his two sons.