Paying our last respects to the legend.
BY JEFFREY DEAN
FOSTER, CHUCK PROPHET & TERRY MANNING
[Ed. note: Following legendary producer Jim
Dickinson’s death (November
15, 1941- August 15, 2009) we began putting together a tribute to the
man. In the new issue Blurt we have a story on Dickinson penned by Associate Editor Andy
Tennille. Meanwhile, below, three artists who knew and worked with Dickinson offered to
share their memories of the man with Tennille.]
By Jeffrey Dean Foster
When we got out
of the van in Memphis
that day, it must have been 125 degrees.
It was the week
before “Death Week”, the ten-year anniversary to be exact. The week that people
from all over the world come to Memphis
to celebrate, mourn, and really cannibalize Elvis. Dickinson said it always seemed appropriate
that they celebrated Elvis’ death date and not his birthday.
A couple of
months earlier, Jim had flown to NYC to meet Clive Davis and talk about
producing our band’s – The Right Profile – record. He showed up wearing a
burgundy satin jacket, looking more like a professional wrestling manager than
a semi-legendary southern redneck artist. I knew that coming to NYC to be
interrogated by Arista Record’s suits was only slightly less painful than a
root canal for Jim, but he did it for us. He got the nod from the suits to
commence with some pre-production experimenting with us. Jim always thought he
got the gig because Clive thought he was the Jim Dickson that had produced
those Byrds records!
We moved back to
NC where we belonged, loaded up the van and drove to Memphis. The first place we landed was Sam
Phillips’ studio. It was the time capsule of a room that Sam had bought when he
sold Elvis to RCA. “Wooly Bully” was recorded there and The Cramps’ Gravest Hits, too.
Roland Janes was
our engineer. Besides being Jerry Lee’s guitar player, Roland was a big chunk
of sanity in the middle of it all. When we broke the strap on a kick drum
pedal, Roland came out, surveyed the situation, undid his belt, pulled it out
of the belt loops around his sizable girth, produced a pocket knife and cut a
8″ piece of leather off of his belt and fixed the pedal on the spot. Right on!
In a “big city” studio, the secretary would have called the drum doctor to come
out and do surgery, but they didn’t have a Roland.
All kinds of
older fellows would wander through the studio all day. One skinny handsome
fellow picked up my Telecaster one day and picked on it a little bit. After he
left, I found out that he was Paul Burlison of the Rock and Roll Trio, and
depending on who you ask, the inventor of guitar distortion!
Jim was always
building us up and comforting us in the studio but pushing and challenging us
at the same time. He believed in us but believed we could be better. With
Arista behind this record, Jim even broke one of his own rules about picking up
the phone in the studio. It was of course a lawyer from NYC telling Jim how our
record should sound. He told me that it took him three trips to the record
store to realize that I-N-X-S was “in excess”, the Aussie band, one of the
examples of how we should sound, according to the record company. He argued
with Clive over fiddling with my songs too much, tell him that they were modern
morality tales and should not be tampered with. We had always kind of hated our
name, so I dubbed us The Blue Lights. Dickinson
took up for us and all of our tape boxes at Ardent were labeled “The Blue
Besides being a
beautiful piano player and conjurer of fantastic studio performances, Jim was
known for his storytelling. Tales about Joe Walsh, Alex Chilton, Ry Cooder, the
Stones and Freddie Fender filled the hours waiting for music to happen. The
best story for my money was about the Frat Rock band from around Memphis that seemed to be
an Otis Day and the Knights kind of outfit. They would come out and do the
regular party rock schtick until the crowd would start to chant, “Bring out the
Bullet, Bring out the Bullet!!” From offstage, they would carry on this tiny
man with no arms or legs and set him on a stool in front of a mic. This guy
would proceed to burn the place down with his soul stylings like a shrunken
head version of Wilson Pickett.
Jim didn’t have
much patience for some of our influences, from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny
Thunders to Kate Bush. He hated what Neil Young’s Heart of Gold beat had done to make folks stop wanting to dance to
rock and roll. He used to say, “Now let’s see your Johnny Thunders do that!”
and told us if we wanted to see a real “knee walker,” come back next week when
Joe Walsh was gonna be there!
This one day,
Jon Wurster, Tim Fleming and myself were casually playing Springsteen’s “Racing
In the Streets” in the studio before we got started. Jim got on the piano and
began playing with the kind of soul that Roy Bittan only dreamed about. He
stopped mid-song and yelled, “That’s a goddamned Springsteen song, isn’t it? I
can see liking Bruce if you’d never heard rock and roll”. A year or so later,
Bruce started covering Jim’s song “Across the Borderline” in concert, which I
imagine softened his stance on The Boss a bit. Maybe not.
insecure and self-conscious sensitive songwriter that I was, Jim was always
trying to get me out of my head and make me stop thinking. He was right, of
course, and I’ve been trying to do that ever since. He wanted me to come home
with him and have his 12-year-old son Luther produce some of my songs, thinking
that that would loosen me up. This one time, he heard me singing some verses of
Dylan’s “Hurricane” in the headphones and quickly tried to get me to sing my
songs with the same kind of detachment. Perhaps his greatest and most cryptic
instructions for vocals were to think of how Montgomery Clift spoke on the
telephone. He thought Monty’s acting was incredible when he was pretending to
be on the phone with someone and creating his own reactions to the conversation
on the other end.
At the end of
our third session in Memphis,
we had some songs that probably could have been on a record. Admittedly, it
would have been a bad record. It was probably one of the worst times in history
for a scraggly southern rock band to try and make a rock and roll record.
Computers and machines were just starting to dominate the way albums were made,
was trying to embrace the new ways. He was a little caught between the two
worlds, trying to please the company men or at least fool them enough to let us
finish the record while trying to help us make a big rock and roll record. Not
big in a commercial sense but big on ideas. We were young and too green to know
how to stand up to the record label, and we ended up with neither the great
southern redneck masterpiece we wanted nor the slick product that Arista
Jim loved rock
and roll and had very strong opinions about what the term meant. It was all
about soul and the space betweens the sounds and the distance between the band
members’ hearts. One morning toward the end of the sessions, Jim brought in a
multi-colored brocade vest that he had bought the first time he stepped out of
a car on the Sunset Strip in ‘67. He also handed me a double LP (“Sold Only on
TV”) of Roy Orbison’s greatest hits. It had the ugliest painting of Roy imaginable on the
cover but contained the most beautiful music ever.
Jim knew I loved
Roy and would
dig the cover painting as well. Our band was a tiny blip on Jim Dickinson’s
life in music, but he cast a long shadow over us. I will never outrun it.
By Chuck Prophet
“Have faith in the process.
Trust the producer. Listen to the songs. Never, NEVER, stop rolling! Don’t
answer the phone in the studio, it could be the company telling you to stop!
Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about what you’re doing. You can burn out
but that doesn’t mean you can’t get lit again. I’ve seen in happen.”
I just learned that Jim died. I’m punched in the chest.
Jim’s presence here may be gone. And it was a big presence.
But his music, his spirit? Well, hell, you know how this sentence ends…I’m
sad. Deeply. But the memories that swirl tonight under the ceiling fan aren’t
sad at all.
Jim’s health hadn’t been good for some time. I reached out
to his son, Luther, last week to see how Dad was doing. They were preparing a
benefit show for Jim, and Luther sent me a text, “Dad woke up at midnight after
sleeping all day, and started barking orders. Still producing!”
Dickinson: you might know him as the guy who
produced Big Star’s 3rd, or the guy
on the back of the Paris, Texas soundtrack
rolling what looks like a round of duct tape across the keyboard of a Steinway
grand piano (they opened tuned that piano, by the way. “It took days!” Jim told
me). Or playing with Dylan. Or maybe you know him as the man who played those
three notes of tack piano on the Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Jim was a magnet. The
people that stopped by the sessions were unreal. Sputnick Monroe? Sure. And Ry
Cooder coming by and sharing a chat with us. Casually picking up every one of
the 15 guitars laying around and playing a half riff. Always searching.
He was a sensitive man, but full of mischief and fun. Corny
as it sounds, he was like a father to me. I was definitely a student. I always
feel his presence. He left his mark.
Jim was also a dedicated man, dedicated to the art of record
producing and to his family. He believed making records was a fight of Light
vs. Dark– but he refused to work Saturdays so he could watch his Memphis
Wrestling on TV. A tangle of contradictions, his gruff exterior never hid his
As a producer, when he sensed that Green on Red lacked faith
in ourselves, fearing it was all hollow, a scam, Jim said, “Never let anybody
make you feel bad about what you’re doing.” He offered belief and made you feel
your work was important. It was clearly important to him. What a gift he gave
Makes sense that Jim once wanted to teach history. Every
session, every van journey, was a history lesson with Jim. Often in the morning
of a session — and Jim was old school: he was punctual — Jim would play music
to inspire us. Might be scratchy vinyl of Kerouac recitations, or Mac Rice
demo’s on 7″ reels he’d cribbed from Stax. (Tina the Go Go Queen was on there.)
Or Black Oak Ark sessions Jim produced back when Ardent
was still eight-track. Back when Jim engineered. “Sure, I used to go out and do
the hand claps with the band,” he told us. It was all part of our extended
I made several records with Jim, including two-and-a-half
Green On Red slabs, and the odd session Jim hired me for. With my band, we
backed Jim on a live record. Jim had been a constant presence in my life. A
mentor. A friend. Just the other day, a Radio 6 DJ accused Jim Dickinson of
producing my last record. She was wrong, but I said, “Yeah, well, it’s like
he’s always in the room.” I told the truth. Jim was always excited about new
music. He loved The Cramps. He never got old. “Yeah, you’re right, this Johnny
Dowd record is DANGEROUS,” he said. “Gives me faith it can still be done this
late in the game, Chuck.”
When Jim came to LA in ’86 to produce Green On Red, we
picked him up at LAX to take him to the studio. He mentioned that he’d like
some weed. No problem. We took a slight detour to Alvarado St. where you hold a ten dollar
bill out the window and a kid runs off with it. Out of nowhere, someone lowers
a basket from a rooftop on a fishing pole with a bag of weed in it. Jim later
said to me, “Boy, you guys, I have to say, I was really impressed.”
I remember over-dubbing the guitar solo on Green on Red’s
“Morning Blue” and Jim saying, “Come on Chuck, grow up, play something
cohesive!” Or when working on the backing vocals on “Zombie for Love,” with Dan
Stuart singing and Dickinson playing drums with those paint stirring things
from the hardware store, Jim instructed, “Make it sound like one of the black
extras for the cheap horror movies: Eye’s
a S-s-s-sombie/Eye’s a S-s-s-s-om-beee.”
is a decadent European habit bordering on the homosexual,” Jim used to say when
we were in the studio, with no malice, just his grin. Years later, he told me
one day, “This auto tune is great. I’d run the drums through it if I could.”
with Jim for a couple of gigs that later turned into the Thousand Footprints in the Sand live record, I asked, “Is that a
major or a minor chord you’re playing there?” Jim looked down, studied his
fingers at the keyboard and said, after a pause, “I don’t know, I just kind of
when Dan Stuart and I made the trek to Hernando for dinner at the Dickinson house, Jim
said, “I was hoping you might be willing to go down in the basement and fuck
with my kids.” So we did. Went down there and fired up the Marshals and jammed
with Luther and Cody on some thrash metal. When we resurfaced, Jim was really
pleased. Just beaming. Jim and Mary did something right, because they raised
two boys who are a couple of the kindest and most gentle men you’ll ever meet.
was a long time ago. The dot where Memphis
is on the map became a tunnel and a journey and a life’s work. And now the new
heroes are the businessmen. It’s a mixed up, shook up world. Indeed.
answer the telephone in the studio, it could be the company telling you to
bless Mr. Jim Dickinson. God blessed us with him. [CP]
By Terry Manning
The Passing of Jim Dickinson is a very difficult
one for me to get a grasp on…
We all relate anything that happens, good or
bad, to ourselves; how it affects us, how it relates to our own lives…we
humans can’t help it, because we can each only understand anything in our own
So we speak of any event in terms of our own experience.
In this case, this one event touches me deeply.
Jim was a very long-time friend. We were on the road together. In the studio
together. In each others’ homes. I was in a band with Jim’s wonderful wife,
Mary Lindsay. Jim and I co-produced together, wrote together, fought together, reveled
together. I took one of the cover photographs for one of his solo albums. We
played jokes on each other. We drank from the same water bottle.
Jim was producer on the first session my band
(Lawson and Four More) did in Memphis
in 1963. We soon after traveled together with that same band for the follow up
single session to Fred Foster’s Monument Studio in Nashville, where the legendary Bill Porter
engineered for us.
Jim and I were the first two employees of Ardent
Studios when John Fry took it from his “garage” to a commercial
Most of this was many years ago. Obviously we
went on separate paths…but at one time, those paths were a larger road moving
in one direction.
The thought that this friend, this bandmate, this deeply thoughtful fellow
human being, is now…no more…is highly disturbing. Most people become their
parents…no matter how hard the fight in youth against the inevitable.
Jim is one of the ones that became himself
Intellectually, we all know that each and every
one of us will die.
But when it happens to
someone very close, no intellectualization will suffice to assuage newfound
grief…or to calm our inner fears for our own mortality.
My thoughts naturally
reach out to Mary Lindsay, my special friend, my fellow watermelon thief, and
to their talented offspring Luther and Cody. May your days be peaceful, replete
with the thought of the happiness Jim brought to so many with his music.
Fade to black…
Chuck Prophet: www.chuckprophet.com/
Terry Manning: www.terrymanning.com/