Little Jimmy Dickens - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


          Little Jimmy Dickens may stand just four feet eleven inches tall, but the country singer has always been a formidable powerhouse. With his striking, declamatory, high-volume vocals, knack for tough country boogie and eye-popping sequin-and-rhinestone-encrusted outfits (which led Loretta Lynn to bestow the lasting nickname, "Mighty Mouse in Pajamas"); Dickens ranks as one of postwar country’s most individuated and flat-out enjoyable performers. His classic hits, "I'm Little (But I'm Loud)" and "Out Behind the Barn," represent Dickens's shrewd employ of down-home charm. On unusual songs like the hard rocking "Salty Boogie" and the morbid, up-tempo novelty "Slow Suicide," Dickens ably demonstrated a gift for pushing country music into strange new territory.


            Born James Cecil Dickens on December 19, 1920 in Bolt, West Virginia; Dickens nurtured a childhood dream of growing up to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. At age 19, he took matters in hand by getting his own radio show, billed as “Jimmy the Kid” on Beckley, West Virginia's WJLS (the station also launched the careers of Molly O' Day and the Bailes Brothers). While attending West Virginia University in Fairmont, where he also broadcast on WMN, he fell in with country singer T. Texas Tyler (later a major star known as "the Man with a Million Friends") and the pair began working together. After Tyler entered the service, Dickens struck out on his own and landed a job at famed Cincinnati "superstation" WLW (airwave home to The Delmore Brothers, Merle Travis and Hank Penny) before moving on to jobs at stations in Topeka, Kansas and Saginaw, Michigan. But it was the 1948 meeting with Roy Acuff that changed everything. Acuff persuaded Dickens to come to Nashville, got him a contract with Columbia Records and a spot in the regular cast of the Grand Ole Opry, despite his not having cut a record.


            Now christened Little Jimmy Dickens, he scored a Top Ten country hit right out of the gate with "Take an Old Cold 'Tater and Wait" in early 1949, and repeated that success with the follow-ups, "Country Boy" and "A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed." 1950’s "Hillbilly Fever," an infectious celebration of all things country, made number three while most all of his releases went Top Ten. Dickens was also a masterful balladeer who had a string of chart successes with "heart" songs like "I've Just Got to See You Once More" and "My Heart's Bouquet." Dickens became fast friends with Hank Williams. After Williams returned from a California tour with flashy outfits made by Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in Los Angeles, Dickens followed suit, taking his own costuming to new, colorful extremes. Dickens' band was just as wild, using hot, twin electric guitars that gave him a hard-charging new sound as well as the confidence to quit the Opry after five years in order to tour with lucrative coast-to-coast package revue, The Philip Morris Caravan.


            Dickens cranked out hits up until the mid-1960s (the biggest being his 1965 novelty number "May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose"). He kept working, eventually returning to the Opry, (where he was warmly welcomed "home") in the mid-1970s and remained there for the duration of his career. Whether chewing through a morbid recitation like "Raggedy Anne" or belting out one of his classic, kicking, up-tempo honky-tonk numbers, Little Jimmy Dickens was always flat-out unbeatable.


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