August 16th, 2009
By John Lewis
Bob Dylan and Jim Dickinson, who passed away yesterday, were kindred spirits. When Dylan won his Grammy for Time Out of Mind, he thanked “Jim Dickinson, my brother from Mississippi” in his acceptance speech. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he found himself “thinking about Jim Dickinson” while recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans and noted that “we had a lot of things in common and it would have been good to have him around.” And during the “Street Map” segment of Theme Time Radio, Dylan referred to Dickinson as “that magical musical maestro from Memphis” and claimed “he was the kind of guy you could call to play piano, fix a tractor, or make red cole slaw from scratch.” It’s high praise, and well deserved.
As Dylan wrote, Dickinson had “manic purpose” and recorded the last single, “Cadillac Man,” for Sun Records; played with the Stones (“Wild Horses”), Ry Cooder (including the Paris, Texas soundtrack), and Aretha Franklin (Spirit in the Dark); and produced albums by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Big Star, and The Replacements. He also cut a handful of excellent solo albums, including Dixie Fried, Free Beer Tomorrow, and Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger.
Dickinson took his work seriously, and part of his job was passing on what he’d seen, heard, and learned along the way. Just ask his sons, Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars. He thought long and hard about the musical and social significance of the music he loved so much. That’s why he’s the most articulate talking head in a string of documentaries, riffing about the importance of Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash, or the city of Memphis (in Scorcese’s blues series). He got it, and he wanted you to get it, too.
That’s why he spoke so freely about the Time Out of Mind sessions. Over the last decade, few outtakes have leaked from those sessions—Dickinson always claimed “Red River Shore” was the best song they cut and was glad to see it finally released on Tell Tale Signs—and most of the players have been tight-lipped. But not Dickinson. He felt obligated, as an oral historian and storyteller, to talk about that seminal moment in Miami.
Never self-aggrandizing, he focused on the small, but hardly inconsequential, details and placed them within the grand arc of Dylan’s career. From the strong coffee Dylan drank to casual conversations in the parking lot, nothing seemed to escape Dickinson’s gaze. He offered a rare and respectful peek from a peer—or, rather, a “brother”—into Dylan’s world.
Dickinson had been working on an autobiography, so, hopefully, more details will emerge if it gets published.
I’ll post more about Dickinson in the coming days. I considered him a dear friend and spoke to him every few weeks for the past 15 years. He was a giant among men.
He also had a strong Baltimore connection in that he produced two CDs by my wife’s group, Boister, and was a big fan of the band's. At his invite, they recorded their most recent disc at Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, Mississippi last summer. Here’s a quick You Tube video from those sessions.
[photo: Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois, Jim Dickinson, courtesy Jim Dickinson]