Jim Dickinson, 1941-2009: Farewell to the Original North Mississippi All-Star

"He left a big hole" is such an obit cliché, but it sure doesn't help when the hole is in your heart. Jim Dickinson, who died Aug 15, was not a famous musician, but he was a great one. He truly was one of those mysterious people who could get more out of two notes than most people get out of 20, maybe because he knew that less is more, or more likely because he knew where to put them. When I got the word from a mutual friend that Dickinson, 67, contrary to expectations, would not be coming back from bypass surgery, all I could think was, now the world will be a poorer place. Music never dies, but now and then it takes a hit that there's no recovering from.

Dickinson was in no way famous, unless being famous among one's peers counts. With his wife and family, he lived in two trailers, one of them a recording studio, on a spread in northern Mississippi he called the Zebra Ranch. A Memphis denizen since childhood, he never traveled far. Instead, people came to him. He was the rock and roll doctor (whenever I hear Lowell George's song of the same name—"two degrees in bebop, a PhD. In swing, he's the master of rhythm, he's the rock n roll king"—I think of Dickinson. The song may not be about him, but it sure could have been).

He spent most of his life helping other people get their music on wax, disc, tape—realize their vision, in other words. Not many people know how to do that and those who do rarely do it with the inspiring generosity Dickinson brought to the studio or the recording booth (and the concert stage: bidding his audience goodbye at the end of one album, he said "Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else"). He was a selfless sideman: he played keyboards on the Stones' "Wild Horses" and Dylan's comeback breakthrough "Time Out of Mind," but those works don't sound a thing alike. He cut albums on musicians as disparate as Big Star, the Replacements, Toots Hibbert, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Mudboy and the Neutrons and the Dickinson boys, Luther and Cody, two-thirds of the North Mississippi All-Stars. With Cooder he co-wrote "The Wildwood Boys" and "Down Below the Borderline." Toward the end of his life, he returned to recording himself and produced a handful of idiosyncratic albums that each defy categorization—blues, soul, swing tunes, novelty numbers and plain old rock n roll. The unifying aspect resides less in the grooves than in the mind of the listener: the unmistakable realization that on the other end of the microphone is a real live human being who is holding nothing back. Listening to a track from Dickinson's first solo album, "Dixie Fried" (1972), Dr. John was heard to remark, "That boy is SELLING that song."

A self-deprecating man who never left his sense of humor in his other pants, Dickinson deflected any suggestion that he was a walking encyclopedia of American popular music, or that he was some torch bearer of white Southern soul or that he knew how to reach down to the very roots of American song and then communicate that essence to you in his music or the music he helped others make. He made no claims for his piano playing or his singing—before turning his sandpapery growl loose on a cover of the Dan Penn song "Pain and Strain" on his live album, "A Thousand Footprints in the Sand," he told the audience, "I can't sing it like Dan Penn, but … use your imagination." But while there are plenty of people with better chops and more golden throats, Dickinson always did the most he could with what he had. And somehow he always reached back and found just the right note, the right inflection, to make you lean forward and listen. When Dickinson sang a lyric, you believed every word. If he'd said he learned what he knew from selling his soul to the devil at some crossroads at midnight, you wouldn't be too quick to call him a liar. In fact, when someone did ask him where he learned what he knew, the middle-class Memphis white boy never got above his raising: "From the yard man, like everybody else."

I met him just once, for a moment, n a New York City club where he was performing with his sons. I got the chance to thank him for all the hours of pleasure he'd given me on his albums and the albums he helped produce. He was very gracious, but as we parted, I thought how strange it is, this world of recorded sound, where a man puts his soul on record, where you feel like you know him as well as you know your best friend, and yet, when you meet, you're strangers again. Until you flip the on switch to listen again.

Jim Dickinson was a great musician who led by example. He never cut a dishonest track in his life. If you never heard him, it's your loss, because he was the real deal. He said he wanted his epitaph to read, "I'm just dead. I'm not gone." I wish.