Many people who knew James Luther Dickinson far better than I did have created their own tributes to him in the weeks since Jim’s untimely death from heart failure, at age 67, on August 15, 2009 — one year to the day after the passing of his dear friend and patron Jerry Wexler. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let the occasion pass without adding a few thoughts and recollections of my own.
Jim Dickinson was important both for who he was and what he did. I only met him on a few occasions but these were memorable enough to make me wish I’d spent a lot more time in his company. He had a generous spirit, a supreme sense of life’s absurdities both tragic and hilarious (often simultaneously), and a thousand great stories — “some of which were true,” in the words of my old friend (and former Replacements manager) Peter Jesperson.
Dickinson also possessed a strong streak of home-grown radical politics: anti-racist, anti-war, pro-working class, pro-humanity. These convictions were made manifest when Jim helped to resurrect the careers of forgotten bluesmen like Gus Cannon and Furry Lewis; when he cut Bob Dylan’s “John Brown” for his first solo album Dixie Fried, and when he sang songs like “Red Neck, Blue Collar” and “One Big Family” (the latter a paean to organized labor).
Jim was a living link between successive eras in Memphis music history: His life spanned an incredibly rich and diverse period in one of America’s most culturally significant cities, from the last fading echoes of the Swing Era, through Sun rockabilly and Stax soul, to punk rock, jam band, and whatever was coming next. At least as important as any music he ever made is that his loving marriage to Mary Lindsay endured for over 40 years, and that he was a kind father and a matchless musical mentor to his sons Luther and Cody Dickinson.
The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Big Star’s Third a/k/a Sister Lovers are among Jim’s best-known recording credits; my own personal favorites include Boomer’s Story by Ry Cooder (Reprise, 1972); and Carmen McRae’s Just A Little Lovin’ and Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In The Dark (both Atlantic, 1970), with JLD as a member of the Dixie Flyers rhythm section assembled by Jerry Wexler. Jim Marshall a/k/a The Hound has posted the most comprehensive tribute to JLD that I’ve found thus far, with links to streams of many rare recordings. Pete Hoppula, president of the Finnish Blues Society, has created a seriously detailed JLD discography on his Web site Wang Dang Dula. [Click on “’50s/’60s R&R,” scroll down through the alphabet to Dickinson, Jim, click on…and I’ll see you when you get back, five or six weeks from now.]
I met both Jim and his dear friend, the writer Stanley Booth, for the first time on the same night in the same place: backstage at the venerable Orpheum Theater in Memphis in the spring of 1979. I’d flown in to report on the Cramps‘ progress in recording their first LP for I.R.S. Records with producer Alex Chilton and to witness their headlining show at the Orpheum, with support from Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and The Klitz. (This all-female punk band’s version of the Bell Notes’ “I’ve Had It” — with front woman Lesa Aldridge screaming “I’ve had it — I’ve had it with you butt-fuckers!” — remains a thing of sacred memory.) I remember nothing about my brief interaction with Dickinson and Booth, although decades later Stanley recalled that when I saw him wearing a sport coat and tie, inquired: “Are you an attorney?”I was fortunate to see Jim Dickinson perform on several occasions. The first time would have been with Mudboy & the Neutrons at the 1990 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but JLD was MIA. ( Sid Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwait, the late Lee Baker, et al rocked on regardless, showing the small but stunned crowd why Memphis author Robert Gordon once called their band “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Furry Lewis.”) During a mid-Nineties South X Southwest, I saw Jim play a fine folk-blues set backed by Luther, Cody, and bassist Paul Taylor — this was in the days of DDT, the Stooges/Black Flag-influenced power trio that preceded the North Mississippi All Stars. Later came memorable appearances at the Lakeside Lounge and Joe’s Pub (both NYC).
On April 6, 2007, Jim gave his last New York performance: a solo acoustic set during a benefit for Housing Works at the organization’s bookstore and cafe in Soho (with NMAS closing the show). Dickinson was terribly overweight, sometimes short of breath, in obvious physical discomfort, and he sang the hell out of “John Brown.”
Luther Dickinson: An Acoustic Tribute to Jim Dickinson [from www.NMAllStars.com]
Quotations from ‘East Memphis Slim’
In remarks to the audience at a 2009 gig in Austin, the Texas musician Jon Dee Graham remembered Dickinson once telling him: “Giving synthesizers to the British was like giving whiskey to the Indians – ruined their whole culture!”
Record producer and author Joe Boyd once found himself seated with Dickinson on a producers panel discussion at South X Southwest: ”I will always love him for saying that the only conditions under which he would produce a new band was ‘if I didn’t have to go see them play’ and ‘if the first time I met them was in the studio for the session.’”
Andy Schwartz saw JLD backed by DDT (Dickinson/Dickinson/Taylor) at SXSW. When Luther Dickinson began tuning his guitar between numbers, his father admonished him: “Now son, I’ve told you many times before that tuning is decadent, European, and homosexual.” (Naturally, this was on stage at Chances — at that time, the premier lesbian bar in Austin.)
Jean Caffeine was with A.S. at that SXSW gig and remembers that JLD introduced his beautiful ballad “Across the Borderline” (written with Ry Cooder and John Hiatt) as “the song that paved my driveway.”
From JLD’s “Production Manifesto,” posted at ZebraRanch.com: “From the first hand-print cave painting to the most modern computer art, it is the human condition to seek immortality. Life is fleeting. Art is long. A record is a ‘totem,’ a document of a unique, unrepeatable event worthy of preservation and able to sustain historic life. The essence of the event is its soul.”
“I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle of more than I ever expected or deserved. I have gone farther and done more than I had any right to expect. I leave behind a beautiful family and many beloved friends. Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night.
“I will not be gone as long as the music lingers. I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold. It has been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres. May we all meet again at the end of the trail. May God bless and keep you.” — World boogie is coming, James Luther Dickinson
When we were invited to spend the Woodstock Festival’s 40th anniversary weekend at our friends’ home in Woodstock itself (actually Bearsville, a few miles west on Route 212), I checked the local gig schedule and saw that former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin would be appearing at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday night. Hubert turns 78 this November and it seemed an opportune moment to hear one of the last surviving originators of Chicago electric blues. Only when we saw the flyers posted around town did I discover that Hubert was but one of four acts on the show.
Also appearing were a local local gospel-infused jam band called Children of God, the 2009 version of the Blues Magoos (!), and the folk-blues singer/guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. (So far as I know, this Children of God has no connection to the notorious mind-control/child-bride cult of the same name. That organization’s founder/ruler, the demonic Tony Alamo, is now incarcerated — for life, I hope — although that hasn’t stopped his zombie believers from scuttling through the streets of the East Village in the pre-dawn hours, inserting their poisonous “literature” under the windshield wipers of parked cars. But I digress…)
Ellen McIlwaine released two Polydor albums, Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), that were among my wife’s turntable favorites as an Oberlin College undergrad. I dimly recalled seeing this artist live, probably in Minneapolis circa 1973-74, when I may have dismissed her as a Bonnie Raitt wannabe. I’d barely played Ellen’s two-CD retrospective, Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years (Universal Music, now stupidly out of print) , that had been taking up precious shelf space since its release in 1998. So I had no particular expectations of this gig except that it might come as a pleasant surprise to Leslie, who’d never seen her live back in that day.
Well, that night at the Bearsville Theater, Ellen Mcilwaine was really good even though not in peak form or performing under ideal conditions. The venue was less than half-full; the singer claimed to have “blown out my voice” at a blues festival the week before in Canada (where she’s lived since 1987); and because an on-stage fan was broken, she sweated profusely under the lights.
But McIlwaine — who’s been out there since 1966, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix (nee Jimmy James) at the Cafe Au Go-Go — is a trouper in the best sense of the word. There was nothing slick or rote about her performance: She struck me as someone who always will try for real communication — if not with her audience, then with music itself. She’s an original and highly inventive amplified-acoustic guitarist who plays in multiple open tunings using all ten fingers; and a powerful, supple singer whose occasional ululating swoops into the stratosphere never sounded forced or showy. Ellen told us that she’d spent some of her childhood in Japan (where, I surmised, her parents may have been missionaries) and had listened to a great deal of “world music” — including Japanese folk music as well as that of South Asia and North Africa — long before anybody began using that term.
McIlwaine had me from her unexpected opener: a medley of Seventies funk classics by Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers — I think she even tossed in a chunk of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” She held me right up through her encore of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” a full-throated, ragged-but-right rendition for which she was joined to excellent effect by the four black male singers from the Children of God.
Afterwards, we stopped by Ellen’s merch table and bought a copy of her most recent CD, Mystic Bridge (2006). I’ve been disappointed by any number of self-released albums but this one sounds and plays like a real record rather than a haphazard collection of demos. It includes some worthy EM originals like “Save the World” and the qawwali-inspired “Sidu” (with her intense, droning guitar joined by tabla and soprano sax) alongside covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Gene McDaniels’ “Disposable Society,” and Jimi’s “May This Be Love.”
-> Ellen McIlwaine – “On The Road Again” – live at Calgary Winter Bluesfest, 2008
-> Ellen McIlwaine – “Sidu” – live, 9.26.2008
Which brings us to Hubert Sumlin, who was backed by guitarist Chris Bergson with standup bass, electric piano, and drums. Bergson impresses with the clean, ringing tone of his hollow-bodied Gibson 335 and in his warm-up set prior to Hubert’s appearance I dug his version of “The Stumble,” one of my favorite Freddy King instrumentals. Predictably, I was much less stirred by his singing, which is unforced but rather colorless.
(“They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.” — Muddy Waters)
Of course, Hubert Sumlin is a black man but he’s not much of a singer either. He never had to be, having made his rep as the brilliantly intuitive instrumental foil to Howlin’ Wolf over the course of two decades until the latter’s death in 1975. It was Hubert’s fate to live on, performing Howlin’ Wolf classics without having Howlin’ Wolf around to sing them, and tonight was no different than a hundred others.
There’s a kind of magic in his fluid, fractured riffs and in the constant movement of his long fingers up and down the frets. But Sumlin has always been the most self-effacing of lead guitarists, never one to build up a solo through multiple choruses to some roof-raising peak of excitement a la Albert King or Buddy Guy. After he and the band had worked their affable way through three or four numbers, most sung by Chris Bergson, we were done for the night (didn’t stick around for the Blues Magoos).
-> Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin (lead guitar) – “Shake For Me” – live in Germany, 1964
”]”In 2002, I interviewed the great American musician, inventor, and raconteur Les Paul on the subject of his good friend and fellow guitar wizard Charlie Christian. By that time, Christian had been dead for 60 years but Les seemed to recall their every significant encounter, beginning with a Bob Wills gig at a Tulsa, Oklahoma ballroom. This interview was included in the booklet that accompanied the Sony Legacy box set Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar.
-> Les Paul on “My Friend Charlie Christian” as told to Andy Schwartz here.
-> New York Times obit by Jon Pareles here.
-> Les Paul Trio plays “Dark Eyes” on YouTube.
-> Les stars in a Coors beer commercial on YouTube [thanks to Al Masocco for this one]Arthur Levy writes: “I watched the CBS Evening News to see how they would handle LP’s passing…They name-checked and photo-checked a slew of guitarists who, they said, played the great Les Paul guitar — Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Steve Miller, several others — and not one photo showed any of them playing a Gibson Les Paul, not one! There were Stratocasters, Telecasters, a Gibson 335 or two, even a Gretsch in there — but not a single Les Paul.”
“Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quite for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you.
“And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and the neverwillbes.”
I didn’t know Willy DeVille, who died of pancreatic cancer on 8/6/09 in Manhattan. I interviewed him on one occasion in the Mink DeVille days, probably for New York Rocker, and remember him as guarded, suspicious of the press, and quite intimidating — with his hard shell and heroin hauteur — to this relatively clean-living, upper-middle-class kid from Westchester County. (I wouldn’t have guessed that we were the same age or that he’d grown up in Stamford, Connecticut.) At that time, Willy was inseparable from his girlfriend Toots — she may have the been the first tattooed woman I ever met, this was long before you could get inked at any suburban mall. Pehaps I should’ve brought along some vintage R&B records to break the ice for that interview: Back in ’77-’78, there weren’t too many people on the C.B.G.B. scene giving props to James Brown and Ben E. King the way Willy always did.
I saw him live at least three times, a long time ago: at the Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis and at C.B.G.B. with the original band, then with a new lineup at a coke-sodden Upper West Side club called Tracks (Trax? Traxx?) where he was showcasing for a new label. Ahmet Ertegun showed up that night and Willy signed with Atlantic in 1981.
Until William Grimes mentioned it in his NY Times obituary, I’d forgotten that Willy had formed the first version of Mink DeVille in San Francisco, then relocated the band to New York in 1975. But my friend Sally Webster of the San Francisco Mutants remembered him well:
“Mink DeVille was the first band I saw at [SF punk rock venue] the Mabuhay Gardens and that show made a huge impact on me and some of the other people who later formed the Mutants. The band wasn’t really that good musically but Willy had attitude and presence like you wouldn’t believe — he showed us how far that could take you. People would be surprised to hear it, because our sound was nothing like his, but Mink DeVille was a major impetus for the Mutants coming together as a band.”
Upon his pasing, Willy’s French booking agent, the excellently named Caramba Spectacles, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “Willy DeVille this night joined Edith Piaf, Jack Nitzsche, and Johnny Thunders” — pretty good company, I’d say. “Sing on, brother — play on, drummer…”
All portraits of Jimmy Page found at Flickr.com.
My on-and-off association with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame goes back more than two decades — initially as a voter, then more significantly as managing editor (for a few years) and contributing writer (ongoing) to the program book published for the Hall’s annual induction dinner. I could write at great length about this organization’s pros and cons, ups and downs, and why (The Stooges) (The Hollies) (Jan & Dean) (the New York Dolls) (KISS) (Insert Your Favorite Band Here) still have not been inducted. For the moment, suffice to say I’ve had some memorably great times at these events. The ceremony held April 5, 2009 in Cleveland was no exception — beginning the day before when, entirely by happenstance, I met Jimmy Page at the Rock Hall itself. This post is based on the notes I took immediately following our encounter.
It was a violently wet and windy Friday afternoon on the shores of Lake Erie, and the museum was crowded — not surprising, given the week-long local buzz surrounding only the second Hall of Fame induction to be held in Cleveland in the event’s 23-year history. I was strolling alone through the exhibits when I spotted a friend, chief curator Howard Kramer, leading a guided tour for a small group.
“Andy!” he hailed me, “Great to see you — have you met Jimmy Page?” In fact, I had not.
I shook hands with the founder of Led Zeppelin, a well-preserved 65-year-old wearing his silver-gray hair in a ponytail. Unprompted, Howard gave me the Big Build-Up, effusively describing my recent work on the Rock Hall’s Soho annex. After some uncontrolled fan-boy babble noting about seeing Led Zeppelin opening for Iron Butterfly at the Fillmore East (1.31.1969) I explained to Pagey that I’d written the site descriptions for the Annex’s 26-foot-long scale model of historic “Rock and Roll Manhattan.”
“You must have Steve Paul’s The Scene on there, I’m sure,” said Jimmy, and I hastened to assure him that this legendary West 46th Street nightspot is included in the installation.
“Great club!” Pagey continued, with genuine enthusiasm. “That’s where I saw Howlin’ Wolf for the first time. He’d been to England a few times but I’d never gotten the chance to see him there. I still remember, he and [guitarist] Hubert Sumlin had had some sort of falling-out and I was a bit disappointed that Hubert wasn’t on the gig that night at The Scene.
“I was sitting there slack-jawed, watching Wolf just tear it up, when Buddy Miles came in. Some guy comes over and says to me, ‘y’know, we can get this guy’ — meaning Howlin’ Wolf — off the stage so that you and Buddy can jam.’ I couldn’t believe it — I’m sure I told him to fuck off!” I asked Jimmy if he’d ever jammed at The Scene on another occasion, but he said no, it was a place he went to hang out and listen rather than play.
“Y’know, Andy, a lot of Mafia punks used to frequent The Scene — these young guys pouring out piles of coke on their tables. Some people wouldn’t go there because of that element.”
Jimmy’s thoughts shifted to another, more short-lived Manhattan venue, the heavily Mobbed-up West Village rock club Salvation. (Salvation only lasted about a year as a live music venue but during that time, it was a favorite hangout for Jimi Hendrix. Although I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his account, author Jerry Hopkins wrote at length about Salvation’s troubled history in Chapter 13 of his 1996 biography The Jimi Hendrix Experience.)
Page: “I may have been there only once but I remember that Jimi came in, or rather was led in by some people” — and here he assumed the heavy-lidded, open-mouthed expression of a very loaded Hendrix. “He was at another table and someone came over and asked if I wanted to join him, as we’d never met before.
“But I said no, because Jimi seemed really out of it and I just didn’t want to meet him under those circumstances. Unfortunately, I never got another chance — really too bad.”
Page seemed happy to go on in this vein for a while: He engaged directly with me the whole time, never looking at his watch, checking his PDA, staring into space, or otherwise signaling that the conversaion was now over. However, photographer Ross Halfin and Jimmy’s female companion (we weren’t introduced) were ready to move on. As we shook hands once more and said goodbye, I urged him to check out the Rock Annex on his next visit to New York. A few days later, the NY Daily News reported that Jimmy Page had toured the Mercer Street museum, stopping at the gift shop to purchase five Led Zeppelin t-shirts (I guess he can afford them).