The late Jim Dickinson, second from left, sits with (left to right) son Luther, wife Mary Lindsay, and son Cody. Jim’s good buddy Lightin’ the basset hound is seated center. For more on the piano* that served as the centerpiece for this photograph, see below. Photo by Art Meripol.
Memphis and the greater world of music lost one of its most knowledgeable, talented, and entertaining denizens last week. James Luther Dickinson died Saturday, August 15, at his home outside of Coldwater, MS.
Jim leaves his wife Mary Lindsay and their two sons, Luther and Cody, who many music fans know as the guitarist and drummer, respectively, for the North Mississippi Allstars. He also leaves us all with music he’s written, performed, recorded, and produced, having played with such icons as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, and worked with bands, such as The Replacements and Memphis’ own Big Star.
Finding Jim at his home off a backroad in the North Mississippi hill country was as difficult as reaching the proverbial wise man on top of the mountain…and just as rewarding. A gravely voiced raconteur who typically played the piano and organ, he knew and understood the origin of just about any American music form and, once you found him, would share that knowledge freely. He raised two of the most talented musicians of their generation, who are as respectful as any parent would hope their children to be.
Probably the most colorblind human I’ve ever known, he came from that Memphis of the 1950s and 60s that created Sun Records and Stax Records, in which black and white musicians worked together to meld an art form that still influences us today. He had a sincere appreciation for black music and culture, and believed that great things came from people reaching across the divides that separate us, color barriers in particular. It was a belief that went beyond his music, once telling me he and Mary Lindsay moved to Mississippi, just south of Memphis, so their two boys could go to a school in a rural environment with black children – not all that common a thing, even today. Jim also told me about his “first musical experience,” or at least the one that convinced him music was his calling.
He was eight or nine and in downtown Memphis on a Saturday with his father. They came across a jug band playing in an alley, behind his dad’s office building. “Will Shade was playing the tub bass and singing 'Come on down to my house, honey. There is nobody home but me.’ I had never seen anything like it before in my life,” Jim said.
Later, he said, he realized, “I wanted to find that. What is this, where is it, and how do I find it? I had heard some Dixieland music, some boogie-woogie, but I had never heard anything like that. It was just right down the street from me, but it was black and I was white, and I couldn’t get there. It took me years to break down that barrier, and I finally met Will Shade not long before he died. Got to know him. The man was a genius who just happened to play in a jug band, but that was it for me, the moment it began.”
I was fortunate enough to interview Jim at length on a few occasions. I always went away with my head bulging full of new-found knowledge and a greater appreciation for music, especially that which came from Memphis and the surrounding area — the most fertile ground for growing music ever, period. Having come from a musical family – his mother, a pianist, told him he was a seventh generation musician – the man just “got it” and fostered a broader, deeper understanding to those willing to listen. Most of those who worked with him claimed it made their music better, richer. Bob Dylan, in his acceptance speech for his 1997 Grammy for Time Out of Mind, called Jim his "brother."
Music was in Jim's blood, in his soul, and in turn, his music became a substantial part of our collective soul. In short, he made the world a better, immensely more entertaining, convivial, boisterous place.
Thanks, Jim, for all you did, and best to you Mary Lindsay, Luther, and Cody.
For more about Jim Dickinson, read this excellent blog post from Joe Nick Patoski.
For his obituary, see The Commercial Appeal.
* The Dickinson family posed on the piano purported to be the very instrument on which Otis Redding wrote, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Jim said he couldn’t confirm the story, but had found the piano – damaged by a flood – in a barn in Rossville, TN. He placed it outside his recording studio near Coldwater, MS, claiming it was in a state of “decomposition.”