Jim Dickinson Takes a Walk

A man with an open mind.

4:45 p.m. Aug. 18

I visited Jim Dickinson on a confederate gray Sunday morning during the winter of 2002. He invited me into the pack-ratted front area of his trailer on a forgotten plot of land in North Mississippi.

A trailer. Perfect.

Mr. Dickinson was always going somewhere.

Our two-hour conversation included Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, Bob Dylan, Memphis wrestler Jerry Lawler (a faded photo of the wrestler hung above Mr. Dickinson’s sofa), Oxford writer-fireman Larry Brown and Chicago ragtime player Two Ton Baker.

Mr. Dickinson played piano on the beautiful soundtrack of “Paris, Texas,” produced the Replacements and the watershed reggae album “Toots in Memphis.” Dickinson also brought the Rolling Stones to Muscle Shoals (Ala.) Studio where they recorded “Wild Horses.” He played piano on Dylan’s 1997 Grammy winner “Time Out of Mind.”

Mr. Dickinson died early Aug. 15 in his sleep. He was on the mend from heart surgery at Methodist Extended Care Hospital. He was 67. Listen to “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which he released earlier this year:

He still has places to see……….

…. Appropriately, after visiting Mr. Dickinson in 2002 I drove west to Clarksdale, Miss. to enjoy some kibbies at a Lebanese restaurant in the heart of the Delta. It was something different.

Mr. Dickinson’s obituaries are missing his Chicago connections. He was born in Little Rock, Ark. When Mr. Dickinson was 6 months old his family moved to Pratt Avenue, just off of North Sheridan, where he lived until he was 9. His father Jim worked for the Diamond Match Co. His mother Martha was a piano player.

Mr. Dickinson loved talking about Chicago–although not as much as he loved talking about the mystery of Memphis.

He asked me if I had any Two Ton Baker records.

“My mother started me on music lessons while we were in Chicago,” Mr. Dickinson said. “I’ve got real screwed up multiple vision. I could never read music so my lessons were frustrating in Chicago. But I got very into ‘Two Ton’ Baker the music maker on the radio.”

The rotund ragtime player Dick “Two Ton” Baker was popular on Chicago radio during the 1940s. Baker had two hits in 1947 : “Near You” and “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch.” My friend Angelo Varias recalls Two Ton’s popularity on Chicago television commercials for the since-razed Riverview amusement park.

Mr. Dickinson leaned over and said, “I think about Two Ton all the time. A lot of my musical concepts really go back to him. He would play the piano the whole time, whether he was doing the news, the weather, whatever. It was narration over this piano pad that he was doing. It gave me the idea of continuum, music beyond the box.”

Mr. Dickinson also picked up some of his percussive style of piano playing in his early Chicago years. His rambling boogie went down down well in the Memphis blues scene and later in the Dixie Flyers, of which Mr. Dickinson was a member with Michael Utley, long time band leader with Jimmy Buffett.

“I call it ‘rhythm piano’,” Mr. Dickinson said. “Its like the way I sing. I holler because I started playing without microphones. My first band the New Beale Street Sheiks (discovered by Bill Justis of ‘Raunchy’ fame) were largely instrumental and we had to play loud. As a teenager I had to get my own piano because my mother wouldn’t let me play hers.”

Chicago blues were never far from Mr. Dickinson’s soul.

His final Chicago gig was at the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival when he made a rare road trip to play keyboards with his sons Cody and Luther in the North Mississippi All-Stars.

Mr. Dickinson first heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf on WDIA radio in Memphis. “I just assumed it was Chicago music,” he told me. “It wasn’t until I started reading books that I realized these people were from around Memphis and had gone to Chicago–about the same time I left Chicago for Memphis. There’s an undeniable connection between Chicago and Memphis.

“And I don’t think there’s anything more important in American music than Howlin’ Wolf, who was born as Chester Burnett in Aberdeen, Miss., but came of age in Chicago.”

That’s how Mr. Dickinson talked: one half raconteur, one-half-lecturer. Earlier this week Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. Top said, “Jim was remarkably honest with a good sense of the blues.”

Wolf was the crossroads between Mr. Dickinson and his Memphis mentor Sam Phillips. Wolf embraced the spooky yodel of Jimmie Rodgers and sprinkled over sharecropper’s blues with fuzzy amplifiers. “I’ve heard Sam say he considers his discovery of Howlin’ Wolf more important than Elvis Presley,” Mr. Dickinson said. “I’ve head him say it twice. I know he meant to say it.”

In a 1987 interview in Memphis Phillips told me that Wolf’s voice “contained all the raw beauty of everything I had thought about in one man.”

In the late 1990s Mr. Dickinson wrote liner notes for a Wolf reissue. He asked Wolf’s former road manager for his best Wolf story. Mr. Dickinson smiled and said, ‘He answered, ‘My indelible memory of Howlin’ Wolf is seeing him sitting on a hotel room bed in his boxer shorts with his hair in a net doing his imitation of Sen. Everett Dirksen.”

Mr. Dickinson was a filliballbuster.

He told me about riding with Dylan from the airport during the “Time Out of Mind” sessions in Miami. “They said, ‘Don’t look at him, don’t talk to him’,” Mr. Dickinson recalled. “The first thing he asked me was about Tennessee-born country-blues guitar picker ‘Sleepy’ John Estes. What am I supposed to do? Not answer him?

“This is where he really got me: He said the last time he came to Memphis he went to Humes High School where Elvis Presley attended. Of course, he didn’t tell me why, but he didn’t have to. He said, ‘They let me walk around the halls while school was going on. I went in the auditorium and stood on the stage–and then I found a lucky penny.’ This hit me in my heart. Here was this man who changed the world who is still in awe of Elvis Presley, as well he should be. He’s got me forever. There are many things in this life that are disappointing.

“Bob Dylan is not one of them.”

In his 2004 memoir “Chronicles, Vol. 1” Dylan wrote of Mr. Dickinson, “We were from opposite ends of the Mississippi River. Back then, rock n’ roll was hated and resented, and folk music even moreso, and Dickinson stepped to the front in both. His influences were jug band and early rock-and-roll be bop, same as mine…..

“Jim had manic purpose.”

Earlier this month a tribute concert headlined by singer-songwriter John Hiatt was held at the Peabody Hotel Skyway in Memphis to assist Mr. Dickinson with his medical bills. Luther Dickinson said the family has no plans for a public memorial and the Peabody gig will remain as a farewell to Mr. Dickinson. He also chose his own epitaph:

I’m just dead, I’m not gone.

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