JIM DICKINSON INTERVIEW
DIXIE FRIED WITH THE HIGH PRIEST OF MEMPHIS MOJO
By James Calemine
"Some people say worried blues ain't tough,
If they don't kill you they handle you mighty rough."
Jim Dickinson remains a musical shaman. After 40 years of playing with some of the world’s most known and unknown musicians, Dickinson continues making music--rendering him one of the South’s most enduring and influential artists. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1941, Dickinson’s musical legacy exists with a long history of potent musical accomplishments such as working with artists such as Sam Phillips, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Duane Allman, Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler, Chips Moman, Jerry Jeff Walker, Toots & The Maytals, Big Star, Green On Red, Ry Cooder, Bonnie & Delaney, Mudboy & The Neutrons, James Carr, Albert King, Rita Coolidge, Furry Lewis, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Carmen McRae, Eddie Hinton, Sam The Sham, Ronnie Hawkins, John Hiatt and a list too long to print in this introduction.
Dickinson provided Luther and Cody Dickinson of The North Mississippi Allstars a formidable musical education. Luther and Cody represent the eighth generation of musicians in the Dickinson family. The Dickinson’s influence cast a long and wide shadow in the musical community around their Mississippi hometown. Dickinson’s Barn—his home recording studio--serves as a lodestone for artists searching for a real mythical location to absorb and record their music. Jim Dickinson serves as the fulcrum for the musical network around the beautiful and brutal North Mississippi environs located 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.
Dickinson played piano on “Wild Horses” during the fabled Rolling Stones 1969 recording session in Muscle Shoals. Dickinson appears on Bob Dylan’s classic Time Out of Mind record, which ranks as two heavy resume notes, but he’s also played with unknown music purveyors like guitarist Charlie Freeman, jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, bluesman Johnny Woods and the inimitable Dixie Flyers. Dickinson represents a historic landmark or crossroads—where generations meet through space and time, when rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, jazz, country and R & B swirls through his cosmic keyboard--no matter the year. Dickinson forces any music aficionado to dig deeper…to peel back layer after layer of his musical influence, collaborations and lineage…
Sam Phillips—the man who discovered Elvis Presley—recorded Dickinson’s original Sun Records sessions. For some of Dickinson’s essential work, besides the aforementioned Stones and Dylan sessions, investigate Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas and the soundtrack The Border, Dickinson's own albums James Luther Dickinson Dixie Fried, Killers From Space, Free Beer Tomorrow, Voodoo Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, Fishing with Charlie and Other Selected Readings (Dickinson reads Kerouac-Hughes-Williams) A Thousand Footprints in the Sand, Toots In Memphis, Big Star’s Third and any number of musical endeavors for an introduction to his talent. Dickinson’s a godfather in the music underworld…
Dickinson wrote this insightful Production Manifesto: “The unretainable nature of the present creates in Man a desire to capture the moment. Our fears of extinction compel us to record- to re-create- the ritual ceremony. From the first hand-print cave painting to the most modern computer art, it is the human condition to seek immortality. Life is fleeting. Art is long. A record is a "totem," a document of a unique, unrepeatable event worthy of preservation and able to sustain historic life. The essence of the event is its soul. Record production is a subtle, covert activity. The producer is an invisible man. His role remains a mystery. During the recording process there is an energy field present in the studio- to manipulate and to maximize that presence- to focus on the peculiar "harmony of the moment" is the job of the producer. Music has a spirit beyond the notes and rhythm. To foster that spirit and to cause it to flourish- to capture it at its peak is the producer's task.”
In this new Swampland interview, Dickinson discusses his early musical origins, recording at Sun Records, Ardent Studios, influences, recording on Atlantic Records, the Memphis musical underground, Stanley Booth, recording with the Rolling Stones, advice from Duane Allman, giving Bob Dylan a tour of rural Mississippi, the tragedy of Eddie Hinton, his influential film soundtracks, upcoming Mississippi musical projects, The North Mississippi All-stars, Luther joining the Black Crowes, and what the future holds for this talented keyboardist, producer, songwriter and session man.
I look forward to another interview session with James Luther Dickinson because due to time limitations I omitted 300 other questions I wanted to ask during this 90 minute conversation. Get out the zombie powder, black cat ashes and graveyard dirt for this conversation with the high priest of Memphis mojo…
I’ve been listening to your music for a long time. It’s good to finally be able to talk with you…
JD: Well I’m glad somebody was listening.
Your old friend Stanley Booth was a sort of neighbor of mine in South Georgia many years ago. He recorded most all your music for me onto cassettes, which I still have. That was around 1987-88. I always tell this story, but Stanley and I drove to the Memphis Blues Festival in 1990 where you, Luther and Cody played as Jim Dickinson and the Hardly Can Playboys…they were really young…
JD: That was the first time the family band played together. That was it.
That makes it even more significant for me. That whole trip Stanley and I only listened to three tapes…Blind Willie McTell’s Atlanta Twelve String, a bunch of Jimmie Rodgers songs and the song he played for you, which you later covered, called “Billy & Oscar”.
JD: (Laughs) Oh yeah….
So, I’ve been paying attention. You’ve been busy lately. Hernando sounds great…
JD: Yeah, well I just finished a local band called Free World—kind of a Grateful Dead with horns—a hippie band. We’ve been talking to each other for years. Finally the time came around to do it. Herman Green—he’s about 75—an old Memphis horn player—sax player—that Robert Palmer was very into his hippest band—just one old guy and a bunch of kids. I just finished that last week. That was fun. We got…since right after Hernando we did a three day super session with the Allstars, Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus.
Luther was telling me about that…
JD: The combination of Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart is truly something the world needs to hear. It was really something man. Charlie Musselwhite is the real deal. I don’t know why we never knew each other. We were virtually at the same place at the same time, but I guess about six months apart. He was more downtown and I was strictly suburban. I was limited by my suburban environment.
Let’s go all the way back. You were born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1941. What was your first musical memory?
JD: I never really lived in Little Rock. My father—my parents were from there. I was conceived in Memphis. My mother thought there was something pagan about giving birth in Memphis. We went back to Little Rock. We spent a little time there over the years with my grandparents, but we never really lived there. We moved to Hollywood in the beginning of World War II and then after about nine months we moved to Chicago where we lived until we moved to Memphis in 1949. It was an enormous culture shock for a smart alleck Yankee punk kid, which was what I was. I really hated Memphis at first. I’d go to sleep and think I was going to wake up in Chicago. It got me. It slowly got me. The music played a big hand in capturing me. Now I can’t leave. The times I’ve tried to leave it didn’t work. There’s something here geographically that I really need musically. My mother played piano in church. I think it’s five or six generations of trained musicians behind me, but no professionals. I’m the only professional and I’m untrained (laughs). There was a guy on the radio called Two Ton Baker the Music Maker in Chicago and he was my original inspiration beyond my mother—who was a fabulous player.
I’m sure she gave you a serious musical foundation early in life.
JD: She’d sit down and try. See, she was the music teacher and she tried to teach me and she couldn’t. I have real screwed up vision which is probably dyslexia although when I was a kid they didn’t know what it was. I have a kind of multi-vision that makes it impossible to read music. She tried to teach me and she tried to get me serious lessons. She wanted me to play. I remember the guy trying to tell me about the dots and the lines. I thought he was putting me on. I thought this was the kind of things grown-ups tell kids and it’s bullshit, because I didn’t see any dots. I saw a smear. When I got glasses the smear cleared up but I’d still see a multiple image. I can’t use a video screen. I can’t use a computer. However screwed up my vision, it did something to my hearing. I hear things I firmly believe other people can’t hear. Musically, as a piano player I learned to listen and memorize and that’s what I do in the studio. Of course, as a session player and the simplicity…when I finally found it in Memphis. Years later an old black man named Dish Rag who showed me what my style was based on. He said, ‘everything in music is made up by codes'. And I thought he meant like Captain Midnight, and I thought why didn’t my mother tell me it was in code! I can’t do it (laughs)!
Of course, he meant chords. He said, ‘This is how you makes a code (sic). He said you take any note then you go up three and four down. He was talking about keys, not half-steps or whole steps. He was talking about the keys on the keyboard. It was a physical thing I could see. Of course, it works anywhere on the piano. Your thumb ends up on the tonic note and what it makes is a triad. Dish Rag had no idea that’s what it was, but it was a code to him. So, with a triad chord in my right hand and an octave in my left, y’know, I kind of taught myself to play. That’s what I still do…listen to what I’m playing on “Wild Horses”—I’m playing a major triad or a minor with my left hand and an octave with my right…that’s all I play. It’s so simple it works in the studio. It creates space and tension and all the things you want a keyboard to do and it doesn’t get in the way of the damn guitar because rock and roll is about guitars. So, thank god I’ve had a career because I play simple and stupid. It really boils down to the simplicity of what I do. I had a friend ask about the Stones session once, he says ‘Tell me the truth man, you were holding back weren’t you?’ I said, ‘Dude I was going for it with everything I had (laughs). It’s just all I got.’
When did you really begin playing with other musicians in a band?
JD: In the 50s, even with Elvis in Memphis and the whole thing going on—which was going on in front of my eyes--it wasn’t until I went to school at Baylor in Texas that I realized I had seen everything unique. Once I left I thought, ‘Well, my god, compared to these musicians that I just met I had all this arcane knowledge. Anyway, in the 50s it wasn’t okay to be a musician—and there weren’t many. So, it was easy to meet other players. There was one particular guitar player named Stanley Neale When I met Stanley, I thought many I could have a band. Then we played in the talent show with another band where there was a real good drummer and a crappy band—and I had a real good band and a crappy drummer. So, before the end of the night the two became one. That was my first band…Stanley Neale and Steady Eddie Tauber. Then I thought maybe I could do it. In the 50s and in high school I never considered it for a career—impossible. But then I went to Texas because I figured my career was over.
The first people I met in Texas were musicians and they weren’t as good as me. I thought wow—but it just kept happening naturally. I studied drama at Baylor University which is kind of a strange thing, but that’s what I did. The first thing I did was play drums in a band for Where’s Charlie? It was just an unavoidable thing I couldn’t not do it. It was one of the most fun musical experiences I had playing in that band. It was great. It just seemed like it was happening naturally—I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. Now I knew I wanted to be an artist, but what? I painted for a while. I tried to write. The music just came naturally. It was the path of least resistance. Then in the late sixties, well into the early 60s and mid-60s the blues festival happened which was a life changing experience for everybody that was there. It all came together. The musicians I was associated with started participating for what would become the golden age of Memphis recording and history.
It works better for me in the studio. The first time I walked in the studio which was Les Bahara’s old Meteor studio. I felt at home. I thought this makes sense to me. I don’t get off on playing live music. I enjoy it certainly, but I don’t respond to the audience the way a lot of people do. In the studio I’m utterly aware of the audience. I can feel them. We’re separated by time and space, but I think that’s a healthy thing. I’ve never felt anything for the audience. That goes back to drama. I never felt anything for a live audience other than a mild contempt and I recognized that as being unhealthy. So, I keep it to a minimum. I don’t know why that is but I’ve talked to musicians and actors back in the old days who would talk about this love they felt coming from the audience—I don’t feel it. I feel it making the records for certain people, and that somehow they’re going to find it and it’s gonna work for them.
It takes the visual aspect out of it. On a record you only hear it…
JD: Yes. See, that’s the thing. It’s two entirely different things—playing live music and working in the studios. I think we make records searching for immortality—fear of death. It’s like the handprints on the cave. Here I am motherfucker.
Yeah, like some lost recordings from 80 years ago.
JD: Exactly. I never set out to make pop records. I set out to document a time and place and a feeling. It’s like the natives in the jungle don’t want you to take their picture because you’re capturing their soul and that’s exactly what you’re doing. That’s what I’m there to do. If you’re soul is not how you feel in the moment then what in the fuck is it?
That certainly questions any motivation…
JD: Yeah, it’s really easy to detect a soul-less performance in the studio. There’s no lights, no smoke…
It’s interesting because a lot of musicians talk about how cold and imposing recording studios can be…
JD: It can be if you let it. It bothers some people. Some people it doesn’t bother them at all. That’s part of what the producer’s job is to control the environment. Sometimes it’s all about the sterility. Some people need it. I’ve got people working in my barn as we speak who are down there because it doesn’t feel like a studio.
From what I understand your barn is a place that took many years to cultivate.
JD: (Laughs) Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a long time. It represents a lot of trickery all combined…
…A lot of mojo…
JD: Many years ago I wanted to erase the wall between the control room and the studio. It’s taken me a while to do it. Why should the engineer hear one thing and everybody else hears something else? It’s just stupid.
It is—I thought it was interesting when Luther talked about recording with John Hiatt, and how Hiatt didn’t want any extra people in the studio.
JD: Oh no, I don’t either. You’re breathing my air man (laughs).
Nobody needs a stranger breathing up the molecules…
JD: That’s right. It’s all about moving the molecules and if someone’s in there, they’re taking up space—breathing my air. Hiatt is a very private man…very complicated individual, John Hiatt. He’s a reluctant artist as most of them are.
Talk about how you got your first music break.
JD: Well, when I busted out of Baylor I came back to Memphis State to stay out of the draft and stay in school which is about the time I ran into Stanley Booth. I didn’t have theater out of my blood. I ran a little summer theater of my own called The Market Theatre on Cleveland Avenue in Memphis. We did folk music as an opening act and on the weekends. The folk music scene…it’s 1963. Folk music was really catching on. We got some publicity and I did a show at the Municipal Auditorium with completely unknown folk musicians that packed the place and caused a traffic jam. We got a write-up in the paper and got picked up in Nashville. Bill Justus—God bless his soul—read the thing and he was trying to put a record together of smash party records of instrumentals. In this case he was going to use a vocal group called The Dixieland Folkstyle—a Dixie band playing folk music on Smash/Mercury Records.
So, Justus sees this publicity and one of his trumpet players—this arranger who was George Tidwell, this guy I’d known from high school. So Justus wanted to get in touch with me so Tidwell calls me. I went to Nashville to do this album. He had all the real Nashville cats—Bob Moore, Bill Purcell, Grady Martin—it was unbelievable. The Jordanaires. I was the folk, right? It’s amazing how much it sounds like the record Springsteen made a couple of years ago—The Seeger Sessions. It was like corny folk songs—“Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”, “Five Hundred Miles Away From home”, that stuff. The hippest thing we cut was Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with this Dixie band and these hillbillies, the Nashville guys and me singing in this Bob Dylan voice.
That resulted in me getting a contract with Bill Justus to make my first record which was The New Beale Street Sheiks. A jug band record. We actually missed the beginning because my first real music experience was seeing Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band in downtown Memphis when I was about 10. It was like seeing Martians play music. From that point I really wasn’t much interested in much else except finding that. But the racial separation being what it was took ten years for that to happen.
It became more intense for you…how long was it between Nashville’s National and Memphis sessions?
JD: The National thing was over in three days. It was just the one record. Everything else I did, I did in Memphis. My first three single records were all recorded at Sam Phillips’. Two of them were recorded by Phillips himself. That, needless to say, was quite an experience. American—Larry Rapsberry—from the Gentrys—the first hit Chips Moman had and I knew Chips from just being around. He’s a very hypnotic, charismatic figure. A lot of people will talk bad about Chips but I never will. He gave me my break. As far as I’m concerned he’s a true genius. In regard to Rapsberry and the Gentrys, they had “Keep On Dancin’” as a hit—it was on the charts but half the band was still in high school. So they couldn’t go on the road. And Chips wouldn’t start making a record until Larry had a whole band. So, Larry calls me one night. My wife and I were living in the Veterans housing on the Memphis State campus. He calls me about 10 o’clock one night saying, ‘Chips is not letting me start recording until I get a band together. Will you go on the road with the Gentrys?’ I said, ‘Hell no Larry, I don’t want to go on the road with the Gentrys.’ He said, ‘Well man, will you come down here to the studio and tell Chips you will?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure man.’ So me and my old lady went down to the old American studios. Middle of the night Chips says, ‘Hey, will you go on the road with the Gentrys?’
I said, ‘Yeah Chips, sure.’ I started talking to the rest of the musicians, bullshitting, before I knew what was happening. Chips had locked the doors. We started to record. By the time he unlocked the doors it was noon the next day and we recorded the whole first album and half of the second album. Chips said to me, ‘You’re too good to go on the road with the Gentrys’. I said, ‘That’s what I think. Then I had my first job.
Go back and provide a little insight to your experience recording at Sun Records. That’s a mind-blowing frame of reference…
JD: It was totally. That’s what I mean, in high school I knew Knox Phillips was in my high school. I saw him every day in school, but still…Sun Records—it was like going to Mars, it was unobtainable. I couldn’t go down there and knock on the door. Although I could’ve, I didn’t see that. It was just happenstance that caused me to record both of the things I did at Sun. It’s just the way things went down. It was a really small community at the time. I was certainly on the fringes of it but Memphis is a fringy place. So, the novelty aspect of rock and roll it runs pretty thick in Memphis. It’s the only place in my life where I’ve even remotely fit in.
The John Fry work at Ardent must have been another interesting experience.
JD: I met Fry—his home studio was less than two blocks from where my wife and I lived. I could jump a fence and go down a ditch and come up at Frye’s backyard. He had this studio in his house that was better than American Studios. Chips was there one time and it made him mad. ‘Hell, that boy’s got better equipment than I do.’ I said ‘That’s why I brought you out here Chips’. I didn’t think Chips would even let me engineer. I thought I wanted to be an engineer and I figured John would—that he would teach me. John told me, ‘Jim, I don’t think you’re emotionally unsuited to be an engineer.’ Which, he was right about. The engineer has got to try to do it right. It’s the producer’s role to finish. I sometimes touch the equipment (laughs). I went back and listened to some of my old engineering. Ace Records is going to put a compilation of the early Ardent stuff and some stuff that’s never been released. Some of it has. My engineering wasn’t too damn bad—a little extreme maybe. I wasn’t afraid to turn the knobs.
Well, you’re still doing it. You didn’t miss your mark…
JD: If I had to deal with all this computer stuff—I’d never be able to learn it all. I’m lucky I came along just when I did—I was a good 8 track engineer. This computer thing, I could’ve never learned it. I use it every day, but I use it with an operator. I can understand what he’s doing, but I could never do it.
I’d go into Stanley Booth’s massive record collection and get—among hundreds of other things-- all those Dixie Flyers albums with Rita Coolidge, Jerry Jeff Walker, Albert Collins, Sam the Sham, Carmen McRae, Ronnie Hawkins and record them all onto tape. That’s one of my favorite bands of all time…the Dixie Flyers.
JD: The Carmen MacRae record was my favorite.
From that album I love Eddie Hinton’s “Breakfast In Bed” and “I Thought I Knew You Well”.
JD: Yeah, man. There’s a place where I play…you know I’m a simple player…but I play the beginning of the solo and then I turn it into King Curtis and then King Curtis turns into the New York Symphony Orchestra. Are you kidding me? It’s a golden moment. I played that for my mother.
The Jerry Jeff Walker album with the Flyers Bein’ Free is a classic.
JD: That’s a good one. That’s a good record.
I’m still fascinated with that stuff. I still have my Dixie Flyers ‘Greatest Hits’ cassette. You can’t find any of that stuff…
JD: You’re right. It’s pretty much vanished. Jerry Jeff bought Bein’ Free back and he re-released it as a vanity record. There is a CD available of it. Carmen McRae came out in Japan for about a minute. I’ve got a copy of it. For me that was my favorite thing the Dixie Flyers did at Atlantic. But that record was crushed by Roberta Flack’s manager. The Dixie Flyers were almost a stillborn, which is something that wasn’t supposed to happen and the fact that there’s any of it around is truly remarkable. They put out this Aretha Franklin outtake thing just a couple of months ago and the worst thing we recorded with her is on there—“My Way”—which you pretty much get the picture.
Charlie Freeman, the Dixie Flyers guitarist, was a real maverick.
JD: Oh man, he was the best.
What do you remember about those days? The Dixie Flyers played with everyone from Duane Allman to Ronnie Hawkins to Albert Collins and beyond…Jerry Wexler made big plans for the Flyers…
JD: Well, it didn’t dawn on me—I made the deal and Stanley Booth put it together with Wexler, and what’s in Stanley’s book is pretty much true, but it didn’t dawn on me how geographically dependent we were, and we went down to Miami and went crazy. There’s no doubt about it. Tommy McClure was the only one that could play right away. There’s something so simple about Tommy that even though he went crazy, he never lost it musically, but the rest of us did. It never came back fully. Leland Rogers told us literally the night before we went to Miami, he said, ‘Boys I’m sorry, but I think you already played your best music’. And he was right. We only hit it two or three times where we did the thing we could do. Y’know, we were just rednecks. What the fuck did we know? It was like, I left after six months. We made 14 albums in six months and that’s a lot of fucking records. We’d jump from Jerry Jeff Walker to Aretha Franklin in two days—with nothing in between. Other sessions, like Dick Holler—shit that wasn’t easy, and we were making an album in five days with sometimes Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin—all there telling us different things. It was not easy, but for me it was like a Master’s Degree.
It was beyond a normal education in record making. I already—as Ronnie Hawkins said—been to the mountain and seen the elephant. I worked with Sam Phillips, Chips Moman…some serious people, but six months with Tom Dowd, believe me, was a crash course. It was my job—I was de facto bandleader, and I didn’t want to be but it was literally thrust upon me from both Wexler and the band because it was Charlie Freeman’s band, but I took all the heat and I ran all the interference which meant arguing with Tom Dowd on a regular basis, which he was literally a rocket scientist. He taught me to compromise and we eventually—years later—became friends and I treasured the friendship, but during the period of time with The Dixie Flyers, it was pretty rough. Like I said, it never crossed my mind that I would get away from Memphis and go crazy, but I certainly did. The first time the season didn’t change I thought, ‘Man this place sucks.’
When I got a chance to leave, I did. Stanley was right there before it happened—him and Duane Allman. Duane is the one who told me what to do. Things were not running smoothly. Sammy Creason’s (Flyers drummer) wife had a publishing company and that was a sore spot. There was a lot of shit going on. Duane said, with Charlie Freeman in the car, riding back from a session one day. Duane said, ‘Man you ought to do what I did. Just tell Wexler I’m tired of playing with these rednecks—I want my own band.’ Unfortunately, the problem with that was, it was my band, but I did what Duane told me. I quit and I went home and I stopped and talked to Phil Walden on the way home and we—unfortunately—agreed not to work together because we were friends and it wouldn’t have worked. It was Duane who basically showed me the door out.
Duane played on a couple of those Dixie Flyers records like the one with Ronnie Hawkins and Sam the Sham…
JD: Well, Duane would show up periodically anyway. He knew when there was a hot session. They would call him on certain things, but Charlie Freeman might be a problem. Duane showed up for different reasons. Sometimes he was just there hanging out. I knew Duane before we went to Miami. I’d known him for years.
So, the Dixie Flyers began to fade before it really began?
JD: Yeah, we cut the Albert Collins albums in Nashville and Memphis was what got us the job. There’s another thing I didn’t realize Stan Kessler was a big part of that record as an engineer. It didn’t dawn on me how much we needed him to get our sound. It’s not like Tom Dowd didn’t have his hands on the gear. Ronnie Alpert was running the board most of the time and he was 15 fucking years old.
And for someone who recorded with Sam Phillips…
JD: Yeah, I wasn’t impressed by Ronnie Alpert. I didn’t want him to tell me what it was going to sound like. The Dixie Flyers never experienced stereo headphones. It was a whole different ball of wax in Miami. I think for country boys we did all right.
I suppose Charlie Freeman felt weird about it all.
JD: Well, that came afterwards. Charlie handled it all right. Yet, he and Duane were sort of like me and Stanley…they loved each other but the two of them together meant trouble. That was mostly after I was gone, but it got nasty later. Charlie had bad health and he basically could have died the way he died anytime from when he was 12 years old on. It was like Elvis…it wasn’t dope that killed Charlie.