James Luther Dickinson

James Luther (“Jim”) Dickinson died last Saturday (Aug. 15) of a heart attack. His loss to the world of rock’n’roll cannot be understated. He was one of a kind. The good kind.

He was born in the countryside outside of Memphis where he moved as a tyke. His father was a repair man and once he followed his father into a studio where Howlin‘ Wolf was doing a radio broadcast. Needless to say, this was a life changing moment. He played piano in dozens of teenage bands, put in a season at Baylor college then returned to Memphis to work as a studio musicians for Bill “Raunchy” Justis, for whom he cut his first single, a quasi- jug band thing called You Do It All The Time.
He sang on the Jesters’ Sun classic– Cadillac Man b/w My Babe the last good Sun 45 (even though he wasn’t even in the band). Another early killer 45 appeared on the Southtown label– issued as by Jim Dickinson & the Katmandu Quartet, one side was a an organ driven frat party raver– Monkey Man, the flip,a blues shuffle called Shake ‘Em On Down (1966). A good start in the biz if there ever was one, he was batting 1000%.
In Memphis he worked as session piano player, put together various bands, got into production, and ended up as a member of the Dixie Flyers, the rhythm section put together by Jerry Wexler to replace the Muscle Shoals players whom he’d had a falling out with. With the Flyers, relocated to Miami, he played with Aretha (Spirit In The Dark), Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, even put in an appearance on the FlaminGroovies Teenage Head (Kamu Sutra), all this as well as recording a killer solo LP– Dixie Fried (Atlantic, 1970) from which Wine, and Louise, are highlights (I’d post the whole LP but it seems to get pulled down whenever it’s posted). Another great record is Flash and the Memphis Casuals, a great garage rocker that Dickinson appeared on in ‘ 67— Uptight Tonight.
In the 70’s he formed a group called Mudboy & the Nuetrons, who made three great LP-‘s– Known Felons In Drag (New Rose, 1986), Negro Streets At Dawn (New Rose, 1993) and They Walk Among Us (New Rose 1995). My favorite cuts are Codine, I Can’t Feel At Home Anymore, Power To The People, I’ve Got A Secret (Shake Sugaree). The other band members included Lee Baker, Sid Selvidge, and Jimmy Crosswaite. All three LP’s are worth hunting down.
Dickinson stayed busy as a producer– working with the Replacements, Mudhoney, Big Star, the Panther Burns and his sons’ band– the North Mississippi All Stars.
Another great record Jim Dickinson steals the show on is the Johnny Burnette Trio re-union LP, issued in the early 80’s on Paul Burlison’s Rockabilly label (the Burnettes were all ready dead), but Dickinson appears with Burlison, Eddie Bond, James Van Eaton, Johnny Black and others, and his two tracks– Rooster Blues and Ubangi Stomp are killers. He also cut a one off backed by the Cramps which appeared on a Big Big (U.K.) sampler, where he tears through Red Headed Woman like there’s no tomorrow.
He played piano in Ry Cooder’s band (and on the Stones’ Wild Horses, Ian Stewart couldn’t play in minor keys)
As a producer he produced the best Alex Chilton LP’s (Like Flies On Sherbett), Big Star (Sister Lovers), not to mention hits by the Replacements and Mudhoney. After nearly thirty years since Dixie Fried he returned to the studio to record two excellent LP’s
Free Beer Tomorrow and Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (both Memphis International)
As a bar owner one of my proudest moments was having Jim Dickinson appear at the Lakeside Lounge with a band that featured my partner Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on guitar.
One of the best shows I ever saw, I wish I had a tape. I think it was his New York debut (I can’t remember the year, 2003?), Oddly enough his sons the North Mississippi All-Stars made their NYC debut at the Lakeside also.
Dickinson also did some field recording around Memphis, three volumes of these sounds– Beale St Saturday Night (Memphis Development Foundation) for years was available only at the drug store on Beale St., two volumes of Delta Experimental Projects Compilation: Down Home (New Rose) later appeared in the 80’s and are well worth hunting down. Another killer 45 issued in ’77 on the Barbarian label under the guise of JD & the Hoods– Rumble is one I’ve been looking for for ages, anyone got one to sell or trade?
Dickinson was something of a musical philosopher, see the interview above. He never minced words. On Chuck Levall, the Stone long time piano player– “that cocktail lounge playing mother fucker….”. He never got to produced Dylan or the Stones, the two acts that needed him most.
Such is life. I suggest you get yourself a copy of Dixie Fried (Atlantic), and Known Felons In Drag (New Rose), sit back and and enjoy what was one of America’s last great rock’n’roll characters.
We won’t see the likes of him again.

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