The influential in our culture often die unrecognized and unacknowledged, or their once-prominent reputation wanes, depending on the latest scholarly or public consensus. For a classic example of this see David Hadju’s essay on Billy Eckstine, “The Man Who Was Too Hot,” Heros and Villains, Da Capo Press. To the cognoscenti, the true disciples, usually a minority of admirers and standard bearers, nothing could be further from the truth. They work diligently—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to keep an artist’s memory alive and the flame of remembrance burning.
Fortunately for James Luther Dickinson, his influence was so vast and prevalent, his musical reach so profound, his relationships so extensive, that we’ll likely be listening to (and by doing so celebrating him) in one way or another for years to come—even though he is clearly not a household name and will never be.
His latest aptly named release, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone, while not particularly groundbreaking (nor is it meant to be) should go a long way toward reminding us of the musical power of the man. In this live stomp of a bar show, with Dickinson on vocals, we’re given a glimpse into the historical Dickinson. That’s the record’s value. That, and the fact that it simply represents a live set of rollicking blues, soul, and roots music, the kind of unfinished, less-than-perfect sound of a band—and a man—out to have a good time (and successfully so) rocking the house down. Even though recorded in 2006, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone was recently released by Memphis International Records.
James Luther “Jim” Dickinson (who died in 2009) was a Renaissance man in the music world. Pianist, producer, singer, session musician, front man for several groups, Dickinson left a legacy virtually unequalled by musicians who are not always front and center, and who don’t wish to be.
Although born in Arkansas, he moved early to Memphis, TN, and for the rest of his life would be associated with that town’s musical milieu. Among the highlights of his career, he played on recording sessions with some of the greatest talent in the business, including Aretha Franklin, piano on the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses,” on the Flamin’ Groovies album Teenage Head, and other sessions too numerous to mention—including what many believe to be the last great Sun Label release, “Cadillac Man” by the Jesters, where he played piano and sang lead.
He also accompanied the following on various projects: Delany and Bonnie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ronnie Hawkins; and Brook Benton, Ronnie Milsap, Lulu, Duane Allman, Albert King, Maria Muldaur, and the list literally goes on and on. He also worked with Ry Cooder, and played on Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind. In 1998, he produced Mudhoney’s, Tomorrow Hit Today. His other production credits are extensive and include work with: Alex Chilton, Jason & the Scorchers, Green on Red, the Replacements, Primal Scream, and Rocket from the Crypt.
As a recording artist, Dickinson’s debut album, Dixie Fried, featured Dr. John and Eric Clapton. His next group, Mud Boys & the Neutrons, released three modestly successful albums: Known Felons in Drag, They Walk Among Us, and Negro Street at Dawn. Altogether he released eight solo albums.
I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone features his two sons, Luther (guitar) and Cody (drums), who are founding members of the roots and rock band North Mississippi Allstars. In a scant 42 minutes this set is an all out tribute to artists Dickinson knows and loves, with Dickinson handling all vocals.
Of particular note is his cover of Buffy Sainte- Marie’s strung out, gut-wrenching “Codine” and “Ax Sweet Mama” by Sleepy John Estes. He opens the disc with a rambling and discursive shout poem—with references to George Bush, Novocaine, whiskey, honey, pretty girls, and somebody else who makes all the money—that paves the way for the opening track, the third best song, Sir Mack Rice’s “Money Talks.”
Dickinson is dead and is not gone.