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Dixie Fried with The High Priest of Memphis Mojo Jim Dickinson (Part Two)

In Part Two of Dixie Fried with The High Priest of Memphis Mojo Jim Dickinson discusses the Rolling Stones, Albert King, Eddie Hinton, James Carr, Johnny Cash, Ry Cooder, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Luther and Cody, The Black Crowes, the Mississippi music community, his albums, soundtracks and beyond...James Calemine


Well, everyone knows the fabled Rolling Stones session in Muscle Shoals when you played piano on “Wild Horses”.

JD: (Laughs) Yeah, but nobody knows the truth. Even Stanley didn’t tell the truth…well, he told it from his viewpoint.

It’s a classic story…

JD: Well, it began my career, that’s for sure (laughs)…jump-started it at least. I would have never…well, okay—the world just re-discovered Bettye LaVette, right? I didn’t have that much time to wait. That was the best record we made up to that point was the Bettye LaVette record and it only took the world 40 years to find it! No, for me it was “Wild Horses”. I didn’t find out for ten years why Ian Stewart (Stones pianist) didn’t play on the song. What happened, it was the third night and just as they started running down the song, Stu just got up from the piano and started packing up the gear like they were gonna leave. Jagger said, ‘I assume we need a keyboardist.’ Wexler says, ‘Oh baby we could call Barry Beckett.’ I’m standing by Wexler and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s what he means Jerry.’

So anyway, I start playing the thing. After we’re doing it for about 45 minutes Jagger’s in the control room listening and he says to Keith, ‘What do you think about the piano?’ I thought, ‘Well here goes. I’m going home now’. And Keith says, ‘It’s the only thing I like so far.’ God bless him. But I didn’t know for ten years why Stu wasn’t playing because he played “Brown Sugar” and Wyman played piano on “You Got To Move” because there’s no bass on that. Years later…the way you have a meeting with Keith Richards is they send for you. You check into a hotel and you wait for days—literally—and two or three days later, in the middle of the night the phone rings. Somebody comes to pick you up and you’re taken to an undisclosed location. That’s how you have a meeting with Keith. I was in New York meeting with Keith—trying to get together the Robert Johnson documentary that’s never been produced. I was going to do the music and they were gonna put Keith’s name on it which was the deal. In the midst of that meeting process I was down in the bar at the Plaza one day…me and Stu—not long before he died.

And I said, ‘This by no means a complaint, because my whole career is based on that song, why did you not play “Wild Horses”? And Stu said ‘Minor chords—I don’t play minor chords.’ He said, ‘When I play with the lads onstage and a minor chord comes by, I lift me hands (laughs).’ I thought fucking all right because “Wild Horses” starts on a big ole B Minor. Stu wasn’t having any of that…

You’ve worked with so many great artists, I just want to throw out some of my favorites. Doug Sahm

JD: Yeah, I did the last Tornadoes record that they were all on. I only met Doug a couple of times before that but he was a great one. He was very misunderstood, Doug Sahm.

Albert King…

JD:I did three days with Albert King which turned out to be his last session. Never made a nickel for it and I knew sure as shootin’ when I stayed home on the fourth day it would all blow up--and it did. I’ve had a history of problem artists, and Albert was one of them. He was wearing a forty-five. So, you didn’t really argue with him.

Eddie Hinton…

JD: Oh, man. Poor Eddie. He was one of the real tragedies. You know, Stanley and I got a theory about going into the blackness…the racially black musical experience. There’s something out there and of course the further you go into it…up to a point…it’s rewarding. But there’s something out there that doesn’t want you with it, and I guess Eddie just got too close to that because he certainly was the blackest of all the white boys. Everybody said he sounded like Otis Redding, but to me he sounded like Mavis Staples. Think about that.

I saw him one time at the first Muscle Shoals Sound Celebration, which was the first time they gave themselves awards and patted each other on the back and acted like they really liked each other. Wexler was there and a lot of industry types and it was appropriately in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium. Everybody played—Percy Sledge singing in a tuxedo sweating…it was quite an event. Eddie played with one of his little combos—a guy I can’t remember his name, with a left-handed telecaster…Dan Penn called it The Blue Eyed Revue…that was what I always called it, but it wasn’t what Eddie called it.

They played sitting down and it was like John Lennon and John Lee Hooker trapped in the same body trying to get out and the music was them trying. It was unbelievable. I looked around at one point and I thought…admittedly I was on psilocybin—but nobody—I mean nobody is getting this except me. It was going right over Wexler’s head—the industry dudes and the local good old boys alike…nobody was getting it. It was just too bent I guess. Seeing Eddie Hinton were two or three of the highest musical experiences of my life came from watching Eddie. To me, he seemed to have it all, and he couldn’t get arrested with it. By the time I used him on the Toots record, he didn’t own a guitar and he was homeless.

He was living in an abandoned trailer. There was nothing left of Eddie but his fingertips, but he was there. He never lost that. Dan Penn—the strange individual that he is—has an interesting theory—I only know this second-hand, but it sounds like Dan to me. Somebody—a mutual friend—asked Dan what he thought happened to Eddie and Dan said Eddie’s possessed. And it’s almost enough to believe. Something happened to Eddie that was way beyond drugs. I always figured there was some bizarre therapy—some electro-shock or something like that, but I don’t know. He might have been possessed. Something happened that’s for sure. Roger Hawkins and I talked about it, and he said some people just can’t handle failure and Eddie failed every time.

You could hear his heart break if you listen to the Coleman/Hinton project—everything after that has a different sound. That record broke his heart. Yet, something more than that happened to Eddie—he really, really suffered.

It’s a sad story and the music is so good…even until the very end, Hard Luck Guy
JD: Yeah, he never stopped being good. He was too crazy to put his shoes on, but he could still play and sing.

Speaking of Mavis, you worked with her, right?

JD: Well, I did the Dylan tribute and I played on her track, but I never met her until later with the boys (North Mississippi All-Stars).

You worked with Furry Lewis…

JD: Yeah, Stanley (Booth) pretty much said all there is to say about Furry Lewis.

Sleepy John Estes…

JD: Yeah, Sleepy John was great. He’d call me up in the middle of the night because he was blind and he had no concept of time, and everybody in his family was mentally retarded so he never had anybody to talk to—he’d call me up in the middle of the night and talk about space aliens. He was out there, Sleepy John.

Talk about the great unknown Memphis pianist Phineas Newborn.

JD: He was unbelievable. He changed the whole way I approached the piano. Just by shaking my hand, it was like holding onto a dynamo. He was unbelievable. When we made that record we started out the first two sessions we did, he wouldn’t even speak. He was still at the psychiatric hospital. They were checking him out for the weekends. He would play sometimes without taking off his overcoat. As soon as he saw the piano he would just jump on it and start to play. There were outtakes from that session Fred Ford—he was very protective and sometimes overprotective artistically or strangeness in the cut—he wouldn’t let me use it. I heard some playing that defied description that Fred wouldn’t let me use.

I met Fred Ford once…

JD: He was a trip. Fred died thinking I owed him money which really hurt me. He just would not accept the fact that somebody did not make money on that record. I gave him Stanley’s money and that wasn’t easy. When Charlie died…that was Charlie Freeman’s project. When Charlie died it just kind of fell to Stanley and me to make sure it happened.

You worked with James Carr…

JD: Oh yeah. The story Peter Guralnick tells about Carr standing on the roof staring at the parking lot--that was on my session. They lost him. They had a bodyguard and a nurse taking care of him. Everybody looked around at one point and realized nobody knew where he was. They found him and he was standing on the roof staring at the parking lot two stories down. They had to go up and get him down…Back up James back up…we’ll give you some cough syrup…he had a mental problem though—if a song had a bridge in it he couldn’t get out of the bridge. He’d get lost. It was tragic, but that was the greatest R & B voice I was ever in the same room with…I’d never heard Otis in the same room, but I don’t know if it could have been much better than James Carr. It was like his voice was coming out of his whole body, not his mouth…it was really strange.

You mentioned Bettye LaVette, I’m sure you’ve heard that new album Scene of the Crime. You played with her…

JD: Oh yeah, She’s still got it man. Bettye was hot. She says now she was 17 when we made that record. She was a helluva 17 I’ll tell you that. I took my first cocaine on that record from her. Had I not done that, the next time would have been Keith Richards. At least she prepared me for Keith. Bettye was the real deal. She says she was really scared when we made that record, but she’s good.

You worked with Johnny Cash

JD: (Laughs) Yep. Ry Cooder called me up one day years after we had really done anything and he said, ‘What are you doing on Thursday?’ I said, not much. What do you have in mind? Would you come to Nashville and play on a Johnny Cash session? I said, ‘Yeah, I think so. The great thing that happened out of that session—I can’t recall the name of the studio—real old. It was Rainbow…it was off the main beaten path in an old house. We’re all sitting around—Steve Earle was there pitching a song, Ry Cooder and his son and the Nashville Bluegrass Band which was the bulk of the rhythm section. Everybody is sitting around waiting for Cash to get there. I’m sinking in the front room with Steve Earle. He was fresh out of prison and even fatter than me. He looked like he weighed 400 pounds and sweating like I don’t know what—like a field hand and unchanged. Steve Earle was the same person he was when he was a junkie—it had no effect on his personality.

And here comes Johnny and one of his daughters—not Rosanne—and he’s all in black and he’s real cheerful, laughing and he’s holding this greasy sack. He says, 'I got me some breakfast here. Anybody want a pork chop biscuit?' And everybody in the room was too healthy for that, and me—of course—says ‘Sure man, I’m hungry.’ I’m sitting there eating my pork chop biscuit and Cash says—and by this point everyone has kind of turned away from him and his big voice booms out—‘Anybody want some coke?’ And everybody in the room had the same thought. Everyone turned to look and he’s got this liter of Coca-Cola and a big grin on his face. Steve Earle just lost ten pounds…(collective laughter)

You played with Ronnie Hawkins…

JD: Ah, the Hawk. He has the greatest one liner I ever heard. I could work the rest of my life and not come up with the line…you know the story Rolling Stone wrote about him having cancer—the guy’s opening question—a real journalistic mind at work—says to the Hawk: ‘How do you feel about having cancer?’ And Hawk’s reply is ‘Well, I’ve already outlived my dick’ (collective hilarious laughter). I could think the rest of my life and not think of a line like that. Hawkins is the master. I owe him an un-payable debt.

I have to ask about Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind sessions...it's a classic and you played on the songs...

JD: Well, many things in life are disappointing—rest assured—working with Bob Dylan is not one of those things. It was amazing. I met him a couple times socially which is heavy. He sucks all the air out of the room--there’s no doubt about it. Every molecule in the room changes when Dylan walks in. It’s like Bob Marley or Elvis. For the session he was in unspoken control over 23 people, of course 12 musicians on the floor. There were three drum kits…

…Two pedal steels…

JD: …At the same time…I never in my life heard two pedal steels before. If you took your earphones off, which I eventually did completely you could hear chord tensions in the air that didn’t make it to tape. Especially the two pedal steels—Lanois turned it into a kind of string patch. A few months later…I can’t really talk bad about the session because it was so great. Let me just say this about the session—months later, I was doing some dates with Levon Helm and somebody was trying to explain to Levon who I was…I was standing there being humiliated anyway…why should it matter to Levon who I am? Then somebody said I played on Time Out Of Mind and Levon kind of perked up and he said, ‘Well, they didn’t waste no time mixing that one’. That’s the way I feel. He didn’t waste any time mixing it. I personally feel I can get 40% more out of a record mix and at least three tracks of that album are playbacks from the night we cut it. I went down there an enormous Lanois fan and that part was a disappointment to me.

I know 10 or 11 songs made the record. How many did Bob leave off?

JD: There was only two out-takes. “Mississippi”--which Sheryl Crow eventually covered and a song called “Girl From The Red Shore”, which to me was the best thing we did.

For an album, Bob has a knack for leaving off the best songs from a session…

JD: That certainly wasn’t the first time. One of the other times I saw him was the night he was sequencing Shot of Love and he left out a song about Angela Davis that was by far the best thing, and it’s yet to come out. We struggled with “Girl From the Red River Shore”. As we walked into the control room for the playback--Dylan was kind of behind me, over my left shoulder, and he said, ‘Well, we did everything with that one but call the symphony orchestra’. Or maybe he said, ‘If I wanted any more of that, I’d have to call the symphony orchestra. And he said it, Lanois was right in front of me, to Lanois and if I would have been Dan, I’d have been on the phone. It’s not like they have a symphony orchestra—they do. And they would all be there and play for Bob in a heartbeat. I don’t know…but that’s the only out-take from the eleven days I was there. They were there three days before I got there.

So, it was still a really quick recording process…

JD: Yeah. They also recorded in Oxnard before and Dylan had walked out.

Talk about when Bob came down to Mississippi to visit you a few years later.

 JD: Yeah—that was great. It’s when he was on that tour with Paul Simon. He called up—sometimes he calls when he comes through town. Most of the time he won’t, but he did that time and he said (Dylan inflection) ‘Hey, I gotta day off. Why don’t you take me through Mississippi?’ I said alright. He came down here when the boys were still living in the other trailer—I’ve got two trailers and the barn. The barn is my studio—the boys went over and hid in their trailer and started peeking out the window when they saw Dylan go by.

We talked about Larry Brown. Dylan said, ‘You know Larry Brown?’ I kind of made light of it, and I said ‘Yeah, he’s this drunk guy that hangs out at this bar where my kids play.’ And Dylan looked at me real sternly like I said the wrong thing and he said ‘I read every word he ever wrote.’ Oh well, allow me to re-assess my evaluation (laughs) of my good friend Larry Brown.

I’ve read the novels Joe, The Rabbit Factory and Dirty Work. I like his short stories better, like Big Bad Love and Facing The Music

JD: Yeah, the short stories are great. But I’d been a fan of Bob Dylan since his first record came out. There’s no bigger Dylan fan than me. He tried to record with the Flyers. We were set. That was really the beginning of the end of The Dixie Flyers when the Dylan session didn’t happen. If it would have happened things would have been different for sure. It was because Wexler and Grossman they were fighting about Grossman’s artists on the Woodstock album, which if you’ll notice there are none of them there—they were all omitted from the record.

It was Grossman’s revenge to blow that session out of the water. It was booked. Charlie and I were sitting in the lobby Monday morning when they cancelled the session. Back then if you were cutting for Columbia you had to have Columbia engineers and there were two Columbia engineers and two body guards that looked like they had machine guns in cases. They thought the session was going to happen. Then ironically, of course, it was done in the same place we recorded Time Out of Mind. Same studio—it’s the “Layla” room.

Would you and Bob go out for barbecue?

JD: No, Bob pretty much sent for food. He’s very particular about what he eats.

Through the years, Cody and Luther played with you on different sessions. Luther played on a Replacements record…

JD: Yeah, that was his first real session. It came real easy for Cody. Luther went out and got everything he had. He worked for it and learned it. Cody, he’s still a natural on pretty much any instrument he puts in his hands. But the thing that sets Luther apart—I wish I could say I taught it to him—but Otha Turner taught it to him. You can teach a monkey to play the notes—believe me—many monkeys are out there playing, but feeling the note is something different and you have to learn—it doesn’t make sense—but you have to learn to feel what you play. It doesn’t come natural. The part of it doesn’t come naturally, and Otha Turner taught Luther how to feel what he plays—it’s real broad across his whole spectrum—it’s not just the blues…

He plays some jazz licks on Hernando

JD: He feels every note, and you can tell it. Cody is a good musician on other instruments—what he does on drums is so special—I wish he got more of a reward for it than he does, but he’s constantly looking for something new.

You’re a real luminary in that part of the musical geography…

JD: Well, I just knew there was a door when you could get out of which puts me in front of most of the locals. I hope we’ve done some good. I think we have, Luther certainly has…

I always heard you wanted to produce The Black Crowes. Now Luther is in the Crowes…

JD: Well, yeah. At one point they sniffed around and I sniffed around. Of course their brand of southern rock and roll is my heart-felt thing. I’ve produced everything from reggae to rockabilly. I could never get enough of southern rock and roll. Chris Robinson has a classic southern rock and roll voice. There’s a certain creative tension I sense in the Crowes. When they came down here to the barn to audition Luther, I tried to stay away, but I had to listen to some of it. And I listened to about two and a half songs and I felt myself getting too far into it, so I left. It goes both ways—a lot of what I do as a producer is strictly my physical presence.

I really love your latest record Killers From Space. The songs represent a lot of musical territory you’ve covered over the years.

JD: I tried to do that. It’s a jukebox to me. Hell, I have a different concept of making a record as an artist than what I do as a producer, and I hate producing myself. So, if there’s a weakness in my last three records that’s it. It was that I didn’t have anybody like Tom Dowd to help me stay on the path. I’m more satisfied with Killers than Voodoo Tiger because there’s less of an agenda. It’s mostly me singing some songs.

Free Beer Tomorrow was a fine album…

JD: I spent too much time on that. It got a little precious. It was my sons’ roots music education—there’s about seven years in that record. There’s a missing record called Topless Bowling that never came out.

Will it?

JD: Yeah, I just haven’t finished it. It’s the stuff I wrote with Ry Cooder and John Hiatt for the movies.

You played on the movie soundtrack of Paris, Texas, which is one of my favorite movie soundtracks.

JD: That’s the one everybody talks about. We did that in three days fast as we could possibly do it. All the little noises that you can’t identify are me. It’s an electric piano tuned to a quarter-tone scale and I’m playing it with rolling duct tape reels down the keyboard. Only Cooder would have let me do something like that.

The Border attracted some well-deserved attention…

JD: I got five songs on The Border. I made a lot of money on that—I’m all for The Border.

There’s good reason for that…

JD: There’s some really good music on there. It’s one of those Sam the Sham things…it’s one of my favorite things I did with Ry.

You were around Sam the Sham quite a bit…

JD: Oh yeah, I knew Sam before he was Sam actually. His shtick came from a band from Texas called Big Bow and The Arrows and he’d count off in Spanish. The bass player was the same guy who played in the Pharos. Sam the Sham was the hearse driver with the roadie.

Another favorite movie soundtrack of mine you played on was Southern Comfort

JD: Yeah, they flew Eddie Hinton out for that one. Cooder was always looking for another guitar player. They flew Eddie out and he sat there and held his guitar in his lap for three days. I didn’t know Hollywood rules, so there’s nothing I could do about it—if it was in Muscle Shoals it would have been different. It pissed Walter Hill, the director, off and sometime later…months later I talked to Eddie about it. I said ‘The session got a little strange Eddie, and he said ‘Man, that was one of the smoothest sessions I was ever on.’ I don’t know what he meant by that. He didn’t do anything I guess that’s why it went so smooth. You can hear him in the main title theme—there’s one place you can hear Eddie and that’s it in three days that’s all he did. The last thing I did with Ry Cooder was Blue City. I think that’s right…either Blue City or Alamo Bay.

Luther told me there were 22 songs on that recent Mississippi session y’all did. Will Cody oversee the Mississippi musical avenues while Luther’s out with the Crowes? The Hill Country Band sessions as well as Chris Chew and other members of the music mafia down there should keep him busy.

JD: Yeah, they’ve rehearsed once and it changes. It’s kind of morphing, but what it’s going to morph into I don’t know. Now he’s got Dixie Dan from Detroit coming down. It’s going to be interesting. Cody’s response to the Crowes situation—I gotta say—I’m really proud of. As a father, I always saw this coming. I knew someday this would happen and frankly I always though it would be Cody because he was so young and so good that somebody would snap him up. He’s not interested in playing anybody else’s music. That’s pretty heavy I gotta say. Cody is very much his own man. I’ve worked with drum gods and Cody is one of them. He’s one of the five best drummers I’ve ever heard and that’s for sure. Son or no son…

There’s always interesting musical activity afoot down there…

JD: Yeah, in this area—Memphis in particular—you have to invent your own work. You can’t just sit back and expect to do it like a job because there’s no job there. You gotta invent your work and then you gotta keep motherfuckers from stealing it. My boys have seen that their whole lives. I had mixed emotions with Luther as a little child when he had literally no other instruments and Cooder told me—‘No, you shouldn’t discourage him. A musician can take his instrument and go somewhere else and make a living.’ And that’s true. The whole industry has changed. Certainly what I have done for 40 years is going away. It never crossed my mind they were going to give the damn stuff away—it seems unreasonable to me, but I guess that’s what’s going to happen. The studio, through a whole process of making a record, is so important, that I hate to see it vanish, but it really is…

Any immediate projects on the horizon we should look out for?

JD: Man, I don’t know. I wish I did. The best thing—I can’t say it’s new because he’s made five or six records, but the best new thing to me is Malcolm Holcomb. Have you heard of him?

I have not.

JD: Check him out on the website—it’s crazy I’ll put it that way, but it’s not savant. There’s a craft to it. It’s the best new thing I’ve heard since Johnny Dowd, which that’s been a long time ago. I just don’t hear anything new that I like that much.

Have you heard The Drive By Truckers Brighter Than Creation’s Dark?

JD: Oh yeah. I like some of that a lot. I don’t think anything should be that long except Trout Mask Replica. I understand why he kept it all. There’s politics involved. But yeah, the Truckers record is one I would have liked to make also. It’s a concession on my part to like it. It’s funny the Muscle Shoals guys were very secretive. They kept their families out of it in a way I never did. That goes all the way back to the Stones session—it was like operating in a restricted area. All of a sudden you’re in area 51.

It’s the Bermuda Triangle aspect…

JD: Eddie Hinton believed in the triangle between Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Nashville. He said it was a triangle and sometimes—he had an old Plymouth—and sometimes he’d get on the triangle and just drive…

He may have been onto to something…

JD: I know man (laughs). Uh oh, Luther’s calling…

Well, I’ll let you go. I appreciate you talking. I’ll be in touch soon…

JD: Okay, talk to you later.

related tags

Mystery and Manners,
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