JD relives a scene from 'A Christmas Carol'?- Photo by Joe Presdeo
This main course is a hearty southern dish, marinated in worldly wisdom and good humour, matured slowly in honky-tonks, recording studios and bars the world over. It is accompanied by side dishes of Dewey Phillips, Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan, with a hefty slice of Big Star for dessert.
Jim Dickinson interview by Joss Hutton
Ostensibly a trip to take in the annual Memphis In May music festival, which promised everything from Bob Dylan to The Grifters, The Staples Singers to The Box Tops, right alongside the muddy banks of the mighty Mississippi, I journeyed to Memphis a second time during 1998. Apart from the opportunity to check out so many good gigs and reunite with friends like Ross Gohlke of Grinz Interactive and Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari, I was keen to meet up again with the man that Memphis author Robert Gordon referred to as "The beast from the underground who travels in the corporate world", gentleman Jim Dickinson.
From his early days playing R&B with high school band The Regents, through the years as a member of crack house band The Dixie Flyers, escapades with Mud Boy And The Neutrons in the late 70's and current involvement with artists as diverse as Dylan, Mudhoney, Primal Scream and ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson, Jim has remained committed to his ever-evolving love of that indefinable moment when it's possible to feel molecules coalesce into sound.
He remains the ultimate industry outsider, giving a myriad of musicians the benefit of the musical knowledge seated deep in his bones, yet also a devoted family man, content to live in the woods just outside Memphis with Mary Lindsay Dickinson, multi-media artist and wife of thirty years, and sons Luther and Cody, who play together asThe North Mississippi Allstars.
At this point, he could be forgiven for setting on his ass and looking back on a fruitful, if mostly unintentional, thirty year career but, as the following interview clearly shows, there's more life-affirming passion and drive in him than in many musicians half his age. Suffice to say, he's quite a man. So, without further preamble, ladies and gentlemen, may I proudly present some genuine north Mississippi meat...
Q: We saw you down at the Centre For Southern Folklore on Beale Street, Saturday afternoon, playing with your sons Luther and Cody. A family tradition?
Actually, the first gig we ever played together was at The Centre For Southern Folklore, when Cody was twelve. My mother says that I'm the fifth generation of piano players in our family, with one fiddle player in between. They were all trained classically or semi-classically. I'm the first self- taught - or self-propelled - musician in the family. Luther, my oldest boy, when he was four, the first word he said was "studio" and he literally slept with a guitar, y'know, the way kids sleep with a Teddy Bear. I tried to discourage them at first - because, y'know, it is a pretty terrible life - but when I realized I couldn't, that's when I knew I had to help 'em.
Playing with your family, I didn't want to because it's such a redneck thing to do and it was hard for me to get past that idea. They got so good so fast, especially the drummer [Cody], he sat down and started playing like a man when he was twelve. They tried to get me to teach 'em - especially Luther - but I told 'em that you've gotta learn the way I did, you have to teach yourself. I think rock 'n roll is self-taught y'know. It doesn't matter who else is involved, you have to teach yourself to rock.
Q: So, apart from with Alex Tiel [the Dickinson family's 'yard man' when Jim was a child] you've never had a music lesson?
Well, I had some but I've got really bad - kinda multiple - vision and it makes it literally impossible to read music, I still can't. My mother got me some lessons, 'cause she was trying to make me into a piano player but they failed early on! [laughs] I don't think that they hurt me any tho'! Alex Tiel was a singer, he couldn't play an instrument, but he brought me people who could - specifically two piano players, one named Butterfly and one named Dishrag. They both showed me a few things and I've basically not learnt much more - the blues scale and major triads, that's what I still play.
I play the piano like a percussion instrument, I was trying to make the sound like I heard it on the early rock 'n roll records I listened to. When I started playing professionally there were no electric pianos and you had to beat the crap out of it to make the sound I wanted to make. Jerry Lee Lewis, for instance, can hit the piano harder with the little finger on his left hand than I can with both my fists. It makes a big difference in the sound, how hard you hit the damn thing!
Growing up and hearing Dewey Phillips [entirely mad & gifted Memphis DJ] on the radio was a very special thing and I didn't realize that other people, in other parts of the country, were not hearing what I was hearing, until I went to college - then I found out that I had all this arcane knowledge. He had a mind-set, he didn't just play music, he played it with an idea. Dewey would jump from blues, to gospel music, to country, to rock 'n roll - it all tied together in his weird mind and he could sell it to the audience as if it were all the same thing. So people in Memphis think it is! He was broadcasting into the air so, who knows? Maybe it's still there, if you want to get really weird about it, which in Memphis we tend to do! [Laughs]
Q: Is it right that you gave up on music for a while, when you were at college in Texas?
Yeah! [Laughs] Well, I thought I had but it just didn't work! When I went to college in Texas, to study theatre, I really figured that music was over but exactly the opposite was true. Actually, I just celebrated the anniversary of my return to music, after I figured out what I wanted to do. I was in Breckenridge, Texas on April 29th 1961 and there was a band, Hot Daddy Patton And The Big Brown Boys, playing at a honky-tonk called the Bel Vina Supper Club and it just dawned on me that I hadn't sung any rock 'n roll in a long time! [Laughs] I went up to the band, they were all black, my head was shaved at the time - I think they figured that I was just some drunken fraternity boy - and they asked me what I wanted to sing. I said "Send Me Some Lovin'" by Little Richard, which I could see got their interest, and they played it. It was one of my better numbers.
Right away after that, I fell in with musicians in Texas, started playing in the theatre itself and it was folk music - which was just starting to be popular at that time. It was just so damn simple that I couldn't not do it, playing in coffee houses and stuff like that, you could do it alone. I was a frustrated guitar player anyway and I'd always had an interest in folk music - it was easy to mix the black and white forms of country music together.
Q: How did you get involved in studio work?
The first studio I was in, Comet, was owned by the unknown Bihari brother - his other brothers owned King records - and they had basically sent Les to Memphis to get rid of him! [laughs] That was with my band The Regents - after that, in the early '60's, Bill Justis basically gave me my big break.
I got real successful with folk music and ,due to some publicity I got in Memphis, after I came back home, a guy who worked for Bill Justis - who was then in Nashville - called me up to make a record. It came out on Mercury/Smash and doesn't have my name on it - just The Bill Justis Orchestra and Chorus - called "Dixieland Folkstyle." It's a really corny, terrible record but that was how I started. From that, Justis gave me a deal to make my first record, "You'll Do It All The Time" by The New Beale Street Sheiks, which was a jug band record. After that I did "Cadillac Man" for Sam Phillips and "Monkey Man" for Justis. My first three singles were all recorded at Phillips International studio. Actually, when I first went home to Memphis, The Mar-Keys were just starting to really click. They were all friends of mine and I thought [laughs] "the train's left the station and I wasn't on it!"
Q: Coming from such a heavy musical background, how did the advent of The Beatles and the whole 'British Invasion' thing affect you?
Well, it was kinda tragic for me in one way. My jugband record "You'll Do It All The Time" was released on Thursday of the week that The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. Yeah, my record was dead in the water, as were all other American records for six months. People thought that my record was gonna happen but, of course, nothing did! [Laughs] What changed things for me was the impact of The Stones and The Yardbirds, the bands that were playing blues, 'cause that's what my band was doing. It wasn't a popular thing to do in 1959 or 1960 but in 1964 it was and, like folk music, blues was so easy for me that I just had to do it - and I already had long hair so what the hell!
Q: When did you start hooking up with British musicians, was it around that time?
I guess that the first one I met was Jimmy Page, which was quite by accident. We didn't play together but I took him to Sam Phillips' studio. The 'Stones I met through Stanley Booth, the rock writer, who was travelling with them. When they cut at Muscle Shoals studio, where they did "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses", that was kinda my idea. Stanley called while they were on the road and asked if The Stones could record in Memphis - they had three days at the end of the '69 tour - 'cause they wanted to record when they were, y'know, 'hot' from playing together. With [Musicians] Union regulations back then - I don't know if they're still the same way - you could get either a touring or a recording permit but not both. They were in a position where they could tour but not record and had been prevented from recording in Los Angeles. So, they were looking for a place where nobody would care and I told 'em that they couldn't record safely in Memphis at that time - 'cause The Beatles had tried to record at Stax and had had word that there was no way - but I told 'em about Muscle Shoals.
Q: What happened next?
So, Stanley called [Jerry] Wexler, who put it together, and then Stanley called me back and, when The Stones got to Muscle Shoals, I was there. I was the only 'outside' person who was allowed to stay. On the third day, when they recorded "Wild Horses," which began with a minor chord and Ian Stewart [Stones pianist and road manager] wouldn't play minor chords, [laughs] y'know...[Jim got roped in to play piano] I didn't find out why, for years, and Stew finally told me one day, at a hotel in New York, about his thing of not playing minor chords, and I thought "thank god" man [laughs]. But for that, I would have no 'claim to fame.'
Actually, my 'true claim to fame' with The Rolling Stones comes with a line in "Brown Sugar." It was the first night, when he was doin' the vocals, he was singing the line "...just about midnight" - the second night, when he was overdubbing it, he was leaving it out and I told him to put it back in [laughing] and I think that's my true 'claim to fame'!
Q: How did you get on with them?
Real well, it was - I think - from talking to other musicians, pretty unique. 'Cause, y'know, especially Wyman and Keith didn't get along, but they were forced together. There was nobody else there but us and their bag man, a black guy named Tony, and although it was the forced camaraderie of the studio, everybody got along real great. They were real nice to me and always have been. In subsequent years, I guess I hear from Charlie the most but I'm one of the only people I know who has been friends with all of them. Jagger tells me I should lose weight but he was saying that back in '69, when I wasn't particularly fat! [Laughs] Now, it's certainly true!
Q: Did they influence your style in any way?
It's funny to say this now, 'cause my career has been the way it's been, but in 1969 I was basically an R&B session player and I was just starting to get successful. The thing that I learned that I was on the verge of getting too 'slick,' which is now ridiculous to say 'cause I'm known for my stuff being ragged and barely hangin' together, and I learned that from The 'Stones. The way they made records, certainly that record, they just came in like people off the street. I mean, there was no knowledge of recording - they didn't defer to the rules of the studio in any way - they just did what they fuckin' believed in. I thought "wait a minute, who's right and who's wrong here?", y'know, obviously what they were doing was working. The best example I can give - I'm not saying that the songs were first takes, 'cause they played the songs over and over, but the first time they could get thru the song without a major mistake, that was the take. They played it back, listened to it and nobody said "should we do it again?", "should we do this, should we do that?" - none of that second-guessing that I was used to y'know?
Q: Rumour always had it that the Stones do endless takes - which Keith is never happy with...
Oh, they do now and [chuckles] the records have suffered, unquestionably. They haven't made a record as good as Sticky Fingers - they've cut some singles that were pretty good but mostly overproduced. That [in Muscle Shoals] was one of the last times - as far as I can tell - when they actually played together as a band, without the issue of "who's gonna do the bass part?" and all that other crap.
I took my kids to see their last American tour, 'cause they'd never seen 'em, but it wasn't a real 'Stones show - the kick drum was so loud, it sounded like a fuckin' disco band and I don't care who that bass player is, he's not playing the parts. The keyboard parts, don't get me started on them - as far as I'm concerned, the parts are compositional and they should be fuckin' played. That no-talent, lounge-playing motherfucker they've got playing keyboards is not even coming close.
Q: Did you tell 'em that?
I told him that.
Q: What was the reaction?
[Laughs] He did everything but set his body on fire to keep me from getting backstage! Jagger has used me as a club to hit the band with a couple of times so I don't blame the keyboard player for being paranoid. Still, it just doesn't sound like The Rolling Stones.
Q: Were you aware of Ry Cooder's work with Captain Beefheart before you hooked up and recorded with him (on "Boomer's Story," "Southern Comfort," "The Border," "Paris, Texas," etc..)?
God, yeah! I first heard Ry play on a tape that Dale "Susie Q" Hawkins had, in what must've been 1967 or '68, when Ry must've been about nineteen. That Beefheart record [Safe As Milk] was one of my ultimate favourites but I didn't know that was Ry on there until I met him. Cooder's first solo record [Ry Cooder 1970] came out when I was in Miami and I remember sitting in my music room with the earphones on listening to it. We [The Dixie Flyers] had just been recording with someone who was, er, not quite as impressive and I thought to myself "What would I give to be working on music like this?" Anyway, within two years, I was.
I met him through Chris Etheridge [Flying Burrito Brothers], who I'd been with on a Ronnie Millsap session that Dan Penn was producing, and it got to be like a joke. I would talk about Duane Allman and Chris would be like "Duane Allman ain't shit compared to Ry Cooder!" [Laughs] So I hired Chris for this Brenda Patterson session, my first in Los Angeles - I had Dr John in there too - and I said to him "O.K., bring me your Ry Cooder, if he's so good bring him on" - just like I didn't know who he was. Cooder played the first day of the session, he was in the middle of his Into The Purple Valley album, had just fired Van Dyke Parks, and I fit right into the square peg in his round hole.
Q: Not a lot of your own stuff is available at the moment, apart from The Jester's stuff on the odd Sun Records compilation. Has anyone approached you to reissue Dixie Fried [Jim's masterful - and only - solo album from 1972]?
Well, there's a reason that Dixie Fried hasn't been re-released. I know of at least five attempts - that involved money - to reissue it but either Atlantic or Rhino - who has it now - just won't do it. It's weird, very weird. I have a guy now who's trying to find out why. Bill Justis, right before he died, called me and asked if I had a tape or an unplayed copy of "You'll Do It All The Time," 'cause he wanted to put it out again but he died before I could help him - I didn't have a tape anyway.
Q: Did you see The Box Tops reunion gig at The Memphis In May festival last Sunday? It seemed that Alex Chilton was having a great deal of fun at the crowd's expense and that the majority of people there just didn't 'get it'!
No, I missed that but I'm glad that Alex had a good time, that's for sure! My initial interest in Alex was because of those records. I think that the second Box Tops album Cry Like A Baby and the Dusty Springfield record Dusty In Memphis, which were made simultaneously, are the high-water marks of 'pop' music in Memphis - I don't think that Stax ever came close. Alex won't even talk about that record though, I mean, that's unbelievable! Of course it's not the band but it's the American [recording studio] rhythm section and they were a fuckin' band! Y'know, what's the difference?
Q: Don't you think it's weird that people come to Memphis because of the 'cult of personality' surrounding Alex Chilton, when he doesn't even live in the city anymore?
Most people leave Memphis because they have problems and they come back and still find that they have them! Alex is one of those people who it's worked for, he's much happier in New Orleans, which is the only other place I could ever envision living apart from here. He's got too much baggage here. Y'know, people talk to me all the time about Big Star's 3rd or whatever you want to call it and - I just figured this out a coupla weeks ago - somebody asked me if I could see the 'geography' of the record. It really dawned on me that I could, I could see a specific location for virtually every song and that it was all in 'Midtown,' that's what that fuckin' record's about. 'Midtown' is very different from the other sections of Memphis. See, I'm 'about' East Memphis, I grew up there. I, literally, represent the East Memphis 'mindset' and Alex represents the 'Midtown mindset' - which he had to get away from when his house burnt down. That did it and broke his last tie to Memphis. I think he's a much happier person now.
Q: It's always strange to be surrounded by memories...
Oh yeah. I mean, if you think about that record, it's his last set of consistent performances, from top to bottom really - it was just madness and it's certainly endured. The first time I toured Europe with Ry Cooder, if anyone talked to me, that was what they talked about and the record hadn't even been officially released. I see a record as a communication between the artist and somebody separated by space and time and, with that one, the act of communion was definitely completed. I think at that point he was trying to document some emotions.
The record is about the decomposition of relationships, including the professional relationship with John Fry [Ardent studios owner / producer] and the one with Lisa [Aldridge], who most of the record is about. Alex was manipulating some of it and some of it was just happening. When I think back about that record, I don't remember it as if I were producing. Pretty much all of the work I did with John Fry realized what I was trying to do. That was the last record John Fry worked on, top to bottom, although he mixed one more after that. John was, hands down, the best engineer I ever worked with.
Q: During the late 60's, didn't you manage to coax John Fry of Ardent studios back into work?
Yeah, he considered himself retired at age 19. [laughs] By that time I was married and living on the Memphis State [University] campus, which was right by John's house, and it was too easy not to do something with him. I played live right through the late '50's and early '60's but it didn't really make a lotta sense to me. When I got into Ardent, I started thinking thru what was going on and - right away - it made more sense to me than playing live did. I don't really feel it back from the audience.
John won't even touch the board now, he'll stay in the control room as long as the tape is off but as soon as you're rolling he's off.
I know that last Big Star record was really hard for John. He said to me towards the end "You have to mix what you've got, I can't take this anymore. It hurts too much." He said that Alex was treating him like real shit, which I thought was strange because I'd never seen any of it. Although we never really did finish it off, we just kept cutting 'cause Stax was going under and there's way more than a record there. In Alex's defence, he had been abused up till then, in a recording situation - oppressively produced since he was fourteen years old.
Q: Even with the earlier Big Star stuff?
Oh yeah, when Big Star started, it wasn't Alex's band, it was Chris's and Terry Manning [Ardent producer] had more to do with it than anybody ever says anything about. When Alex went to New York with Keith Sykes [after The Box Tops], he came back a different person and that person was vulnerable. During the first Big Star album he gradually got his strength back and took the band over - that's the way I see it and I was watchin' - from Chris, who I've known since he was a baby. When Chris understood what was going on and left, then it was Alex's band. The bass player [Andy] Hummel couldn't play, didn't care and when it got to the stage where I came along, it was all deteriorating. That's what I recorded, the deterioration. Decomposition has always been interesting to me anyway - I like to watch shit rot! [Laughs]
Q: How did you meet Bob Dylan?
His manager said that they'd looked for me a coupla times. The Dixie Flyers were supposed to record with Dylan when we were down in Miami in 1970. In fact, we didn't know the session was cancelled until the Monday. It was cancelled because [late Dylan manager Albert] Grossman and [Jerry] Wexler were fighting over the rights to the Woodstock soundtrack. Grossman pulled the plug on it at the last minute.
I've been a Dylan fan since before he made a record, it was something I've wanted to do for thirty five years. Dylan - it's trite to say - is the voice of a generation and he is the ultimate white artist.
Q: We've been hearing rumours in Memphis that Dylan's been saying that he's moving to town.
I wouldn't say that, he just likes to come to Memphis a lot. He told me that he 'had a lot of houses but he didn't have a home' and that he liked to come and just wander around. He said things that let me know he was still in awe, y'know, where else would he go? Memphis is mecca, it's a very strange place and it takes a long time to understand.
Q: How's the Dylan record [that became Time Out Of Mind] sounding?
I don't know, I haven't been able to tell what's actually happening. I know they were listening to playbacks, I don't know whether they were trying to mix it or not! [Laughs] Twelve musicians playing live - three sets of drums, [Whistles] it was unbelievable - two pedal steels, I've never even heard two pedal steels played at the same time before! It was, like, sheer chaos for an hour and a half and then eight minutes of beautiful music. The playbacks were chaos, when Dylan comes to mix it I think he's gonna be in a lot of trouble. I don't know man, I thought that much was overdoing it, quite frankly. I'm a big fan and you never know what a masterful producer can do - producing is quite a subversive activity - so I can't really make any judgements until I hear the mixes. All I was doing was playing piano, Augie Meyers [Sir Douglas Quintet] was playing organ.
Q: I was talking to Scott from The Grifters last night, who said that Dylan could come over to his house, sit on the porch, smoke dope and drink a beer with him but that he wouldn't give him any "fuckin' special treatment." Do you think it's accurate to say that people here don't seem to really care what goes on outside of Memphis?
Oh, I think that's true, although lot of 'em don't know what goes on in the rest of the world! I've managed to get out a coupla times, I can't leave though 'cause there's definitely something here that I desperately need - especially musically. I start to play real funny shit anywhere else.
Q: Have you ever been able to pin down the reasons why Memphis is so special?
No, I wish I knew, it would make it easier if I did. I discovered that Spooner Oldham [Dan Penn's writing partner and ace keyboard man] had tapes of himself playing in all different places and that the tapes from Memphis were definitely better. I thought that maybe it was true of me as well, I checked and it's definite. I have a way I've learned to play in Los Angeles but it's not the same. After ten days, my left hand starts to wander and I just play different - I can't stop it. Plus, y'know, I love it here - the way I talk about the area you might think I hate it but I don't. It's not even a love / hate relationship, I just love it.
The idea that Dewey Phillips was getting across on the radio, for a lot of people in Memphis it's in their minds, whether they know it or not and they can't get it out. Like, both of our mayors, one black and one white and with very different approaches, have quoted Dewey Phillips in the newspapers over the past six months. Even these straight-laced, fat cat, Republican assholes who run the city, they sat there and listened to Dewey Phillips play black and white music side by side. You go to Graceland now and you see a buncha crap but you don't see the idea there - it's fuckin' criminal but done on purpose. The very thing that Elvis lived for has been eliminated from the history of his life. Sam Phillips, when he was recording Elvis, was recording an idea.
Q: I find it strange that, although it's now a tourist haven, most of Beale Street was deserted for many years, and it seems that only now does the city itself realise what was on it's doorstep all along...
Exactly. Beale Street itself was not that bad, I guess it could be called a ghetto but it really was more of just a black neighbourhood - it was a place where white people couldn't go but what's wrong with that? In terms of quality of life, it wasn't nearly as bad as it was made out. To whites and black 'establishment' Memphians, it was an eyesore and an embarrassment. They destroyed it on purpose. It's a tourist mall now, you can't imagine what it was like. I signed my first recording contract on Beale Street - for a record that never came out - with Ruben Cherry's "Home Of The Blues" label. There was an area from Main Street to Mulberry street where white people could go in the daytime and as a teenager that's where I hung - Lansky Brothers' [clothes shop favoured by Elvis], "Home Of The Blues" [famous record shop], Nathan Novick's pawn shop - where I bought my first guitar, it was unbelievable. If you were interested in what I was into, it was the place to go and they tore it down.
I think that what causes Memphis music to happen is the spirit, it's not here all the time - it comes and goes - but I think it'll be back. It's stronger than what's down there on Beale Street now, whatever was in the bushes that talked to Robert Johnson is still there. I mean, what happened on Beale Street is cultural genocide but you can still walk down there and feel something - very vaguely but it's there. I don't know if it's in the dirt - Knox Phillips [Sam's son] says it's in the water - but it has something to do with humidity, that's for sure. Maybe it's a combination of that and the low altitude...
Q: It's good for the molecules...
Absolutely! You go to Boulder, Colorado and try to make a record - you're in a lotta fuckin' trouble - there's not enough density in the air. If you go to New Orleans, there's almost too much, you have to understand what you're dealing with here! Nashville is only two hundred miles away but it's so different that it might as well be on the other side of the earth.
Q: How does Memphis work for bands like Primal Scream [the Give Out But Don't Give Up L.P.] and Spiritualized, who come in to record with you from 'outside'? What sort of experience did you have producing them?
Well, I think it works better with some people than with others. Even if you're just passing through for the night, I think that you can pick up on it a little but some people come to Memphis with the wrong leadership and have not exactly gone to the right places. I think Primal Scream could've done better, in terms of finding and getting what they were actually after.
Spiritualized was funny because the thing that brought that guy to me was so obscure - I did a skinflick soundtrack called Curse Of The Alphastone - and I've noticed that all of the Spacemen 3 have used the term "Alphastone" or mentioned it in the press. Where they heard it, I don't know but - Jason [Pierce] for sure - had obviously been tremendously affected by this one piece of music that I did. I don't think that he got what he wanted from me but he had gone about constructing the music in an entirely different manner than I had. I doubt that my mix will ever come out, he wanted an electronically affected mix, that's what his heart was in. When I did ...Alphastone, I was trying to make a fucking record for $1,500 and I had some drum loops from The Bar-Kays, some horn parts and I started putting crap on top of it, it was the only thing I could possibly do! [Laughs] That's what house music sounds like to me! I don't know, the simplistic aspect of it is very seductive but I haven't yet heard anything that's talking to me. I mean, pop music is based on inane repetition but, to me, hypnotic repetition has to be performed, it can't be electronic or synthesized.
Q: Where's your head at in terms of recording techniques?
I embraced digital technology almost instantly- I like to make a high-fidelity recording of a low-fidelity sound. Analogue sounds better but it changes right away - what I refer to as 'analogue meltdown' means that it's not a perfect storage medium. So if you're interested in the sound you're recording, at the moment of recording, digital is better 'cause analogue is so temporary. I still use the analogue process, I just use it as a stage.
I've recorded a lot of different music, from reggae to rockabilly and stuff beyond that, and the part of the recording process that I go for is the space between the notes - I tell the bands that part's mine. Art is about contrasts y'know - between light and dark, sound and silence and motion and stillness, that sort of thing - and the more contrast you can create in the recording process, the more obvious the statement becomes. The longer I do it, the simpler I try to make it. I've gone back to using mono piano, mono organ and an overhead mike on the drums.
Q: Which current Memphis area musicians do you rate?
I think that The Grifters had it up to a point but then they kinda lost their vision. RL Burnside is fucking brilliant, the guy's a master of the Mississippi hill country one-chord boogie - what we used to call the 'endless boogie.' The north Mississippi honky-tonk phenomenon [centered around Clarksdale] is something that's been going on for years, the reason that people are paying attention to it now is that Beale Street has become so artificial. It's curious that people are responding to it as something other than blues. People respond to my kids band [Gutbucket] the same way, Luther's playing Fred McDowell note for note, but that's because the blues - in the public's mind - has become some fat white guy from Boston who plays like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Pop music is like American democracy, it's a sponge, and it's sucked up every musical form that's come along.
Q: What sort of stuff are you currently listening to at home?
For pleasure I listen mostly to 50's jazz, Sketches Of Spain [Miles Davis] is still a big favourite. Y'know, most 'romantic' versions of Beale Street have blues down there but, in the clubs, it was jazz and blues (that) was on the street or in the alley. Among the black musicians in Memphis, no matter what you played for a living, you were trying to play jazz - I tried and I can't. We had - what we called - a jazz band back in the 50's and people paid us to stop playing - it was terrible! [Laughs] That's the ultimate - to be paid not to record!
Something else that was entirely life-changing for me was seeing The Sex Pistols. I got an entirely different picture of it than everybody else I talked to but I loved it! They all talked bad about Sid but, as far as I'm concerned, they were all hanging onto him. What Sid was doing was one of the best acts that I've ever seen in my whole life - musically as well. I mean, it wasn't just a visually defined thing, what he was doing with that instrument was [laughs] unbelievable! He was jacking the bass off with both hands, oh that I could've recorded it - he must've been making a beautiful sound. Everyone else in Memphis abhorred it and I just thought "shit yeah, bring me some more of this!" Like, when I was engineering at Ardent in '66, the band that became Black Oak Arkansas - who were then called Nobody Else - came in and had been thrown out of two studios, for playing too loud and having big amps and all that shit, I said "Bring it on in man!" I'm still like that, whatever's next, I wanna see it before somebody fucks it up!
Q: Any thoughts on 'pop music' in general?
I think people make records out of a primal urge - it's a fear of death. Every western religion is about the search for immortality and I think that people who make records understand that - consciously or unconsciously. I think that - to an extent - the degree to which people understand that makes the difference between a good and a bad record. Certainly Robert Johnson understood that - intuitively - he was singing to the ages 'cause of the words he used. He wouldn't have sung them at a honky-tonk, where nobody could hear them or give a shit anyway. I think that fact will preserve the record business, at least long enough for me.
The idea of pop success is so seductive that you're trapped by it before you know you're in it. Everyone who ever stood in front of a mirror and strummed a tennis racket wanted a hit record. I had punk guys say to me "I don't want a fucking hit", well hold on - nobody who started in this business didn't want one! It's all a compromise, from start to finish, Tom Dowd taught me that. The record itself is a compromise - it's not a performance, it's a recording of a performance.
I would like to offer my most heartfelt thanks to Jim (for the time and kind words), Mary (for her unfettered courtesy), Luther and Cody. "World boogie IS coming!"
The following piece stems from a reunion gig performed by Jim's high school combo, The Regents, during September of 1997 and is included as an added bonus.
A Memphis Tale
It was about half an hour past midnight on a hot and humid Sunday evening in late September when your intrepid scribe, aided and abetted by Grinz Interactive's head-honcho, Ross Gohlke, approached a non-descript fire door, off a seedy alley, in the downtown area of Memphis and knocked loudly three times. Working on a tip-off from the guy who runs Audiomania - a great record store on Madison, in 'Midtown' Memphis - we were looking to find a legend. Well, we hit paydirt.
In a small, scrubby club called Barristers - the scene of many a great nite of Memphis music -, in front of about fifteen of his friends and family, we witnessed James Luther Dickinson lead a reunion of his high school band; The Regents.
Dickinson is still very much a part of the Memphis music scene, unlike so many of his contemporaries, and members of the local glitterati - The Grifters, The Hellcats and The Oblivians plus the folks from Shangri-La Records - came along to pay homage, get down and suck on a few beers!
The imposing 'Rev. Luther' led - ex-Regents - 'Tricky Dicky' Ireland (Guitar) and 'Steady Eddie' Tamber (Drums), his sons - also known as Memphis band DDT - Cody 'Suitman' Dickinson (Drums) and 'Lightnin' Luther' Dickinson (Guitar) plus 'Mr' Paul Taylor (Bass) in giving raucous life to totally rockin' versions of such classics as "Train Kept A-Rollin" and "Drinking Wine - Spoon-O-Dee."
The atmosphere was warm and friendly, the beer iced and the band played on.......
Come back there with us now and take a whiff as the leader of The Regents, Sun recording artists The Jesters, Rolling Stones pianist, Mud Boy & The Neutrons alumni and member of The Dixie Flyers, - The Reverend James Luther Dickinson - regales us with a tale both tall and true;
"The high bourbon-mark - as it were - of our career was one night in 1959 at the National Guard Armory when we opened for Bo Diddley. That night there was this slight contract dispute. Bo Diddley - who was several hours late when he got there - he looked at the contract. Richard Sales - who was then president of TKO, putting on the dance - he had this contract. He says, "Now you're taking one break - you're here late already - now you're just gonna take one break." And Bo Diddley says, "No, I'm taking three breaks." Richard says, "No, no - look down here in the contract - it says you're taking one break." Bo Diddley reaches in his pocket and he gets this little greasy square of paper and he unfolds it about twenty times and - sure enough - it's the contract. And he says, "Yeah." - he folds it back up and puts it in his pocket - "it says that in my contract too but I tell you what." He points at me and says, "You could have been Bo Diddley," - he points at Stanley and says - "or he could have been Bo Diddley but I am Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley is taking three breaks." He took three breaks and we played the breaks.
He was way up on a pedestal and Graflund was trying to climb up there and get to him - so he could play his maracas - wearing a six-pack of beer on his head like an Indian headdress. It was a spectacular moment.
Bo Diddley never came down - he stayed up there all night - and he looked down at one point, we were playing "Smokestack Lightnin" - I think - and kinda gave us the thumbs up. Y'know, I thought I had it made at that moment.
He had a maraca-player named Jerome Green and I decided that I was gonna get my first 'theatrical' autograph. So, I went into the bathroom in between sets. Bo Diddley is still up there but Jerome and Clifton, the drummer, went in the bathroom. Jerome was sitting in the urinal - with a hairnet on over his pompadour - reading a Batman comic-book. He autographed my guitar case - my Silvertone guitar case that I bought from new and wish I still had - "Jerome Green, Bo Diddley Band." If Bo Diddley were here tonight, he would say "....
The Regents then launched into a cataclysmic medley of "Bo Diddley / Who Do You Love" and the fate of our souls - and livers - was secured.
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