Last Saturday, we lost perhaps the greatest, most influential musician ever born in Little Rock when Jim Dickinson died in a Memphis hospital at 67. He was far from a household name (the magazine Bucketful of Brains aptly called him a “non-careerist”), but who can touch his CV? It's a constellation of musical achievement, spanning four decades and more genres than you can count.
Singing lead with the Jesters, he cut the last great record ever released by Sun. He played piano on “Wild Horses” (look closely in “Gimme Shelter,” and you'll see him lounging on a couch with Keith) and the Flaming Groovies' rejoinder to “Sticky Fingers,” “Teenage Head.” In the '70s, he was a founding member of the Dixie Flyers, a Memphis rhythm section Jerry Wexler and Atlantic brought to Miami to cut records with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave and Ronnie Hawkins. In LA, he collaborated with Ry Cooder on a number of solo albums and soundtracks, including “Paris, Texas.”
In the years that followed, he became a much in-demand producer, most famously of Big Star's deconstructionist pop masterpiece “Third/Sister Lovers” and the Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me,” but also of stand-out records from everyone from Mudhoney to Screamin' Jay Hawkins to Lucero. His piano playing on “Time Out of Mind,” inspired Bob Dylan, in his Grammy acceptance speech, to thank his “brother from Mississippi, Jim Dickinson.” (Dylan later, on his radio show, described Dickinson as “that magical musical maestro from Memphis … the kind of guy you could call to play piano, fix a tractor, or make red cole slaw from scratch.”)
And that's the short version, skipping past his work helping to expose forgotten Memphis bluesmen like Furry Lewis, cult projects like Mudboy and the Neutrons and “Dixie Fried” and his more famous sons, Luther and Cody Dickinson, of North Mississippi All-Stars, Hill Country Revue and Black Crowes fame.
Though he was typically associated with Memphis and spent a good bit of his life, including his last days, raising his family in North Mississippi, Dickinson always stayed connected to the Little Rock scene. He produced the Gunbunnies “Paw Paw Patch” in 1989 and later helmed records by the Boondogs and the Magic Cropdusters.
That Boondogs record never saw the light of day. It was an album neither party was happy with, but Dickinson remained a towering influence (and friend) to Jason Weinheimer, who in recent years had been collaborating on a documentary on the musician.
“Jim used to describe ‘that Little Rock Thing' to me — a trait he observed and admired in the musicians he encountered here. Simply put, it was the Little Rock music scene's complete disregard for the world outside ours. I think he was a huge fan of our insular, stubborn, independent spirit because it reflected his own.
“Little Rock's true music scene has yet to successfully export anything beyond Central Arkansas, and we don't seem to care. Likewise, Jim's career reflects decisions made strictly for himself and his family. When the Dixie Flyers were so hot in Miami, Jim left the band to return home to Memphis. As his career in L.A. was taking off, he came back again to raise his family in the South. And instead of becoming a caricature of himself in the post-Elvis Memphis, he moved further South into backwoods Mississippi to immerse his sons in hill country music and culture.”
Ultimately, Weinheimer said, he expects popular regard for Dickinson's work to eclipse his cult status.
“He talked a lot about pop music being nothing but a quest for immortality. I'll miss him dearly, but his legend lives on.”