Les Paul/Jim Dickinson…RIP.

I suppose tears are called for, but somehow it just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Les Paul and Jim Dickinson, two very different but equally unique and talented musicians, producers and inventors passed away within days of each other this week – Paul on the thirteenth and Dickinson on the fifteenth. One was venerated the world over for his contributions to the arts of music and technology, helping shape the sound of rock, country and just about anyone who’s picked up a guitar since the 1950’s; the other is known mainly for his work on one song, the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses” and his association with eccentric Memphis cult act Big Star. And yet they each, in their own unique fashion, played an important, often indefinable role in nurturing the very essence of what makes American music such a vital force of innovation and joy.

In my own universe, at least, they loom equally large.

Through his invention of the electric guitar and multi-track recording techniques, Les Paul stands as one of the major architects of the sound world we all inhabit in the 21st century: Hendrix, Jamaican dub, Sergeant Peppers, the whole 60’s psychedelic head rush — none of these would be imaginable without innovations such as overdubbing, tape delay, phasing effects, etc., all of them dreamed up and worked into the fabric of modern day recording techniques by Les Paul.

But most of all the man was a musician, a lifer, who continued to perfect his craft and lose himself in the same river of sound he dreamed of and conjured into being as a young high school dropout coaxing small torrents of notes from the first crude, electric guitar prototype, called simply “The Log,” which he duck taped together during his days on the Wisconsin barroom circuit. With a bit of reworking, “The Log” would eventually become better known as the Gibson Les Paul, one of the world’s most venerated guitars, beloved of everyone from Eric Clapton and Keith Richards to B.B. King and Chet Atkins.

He may have looked like an accountant, but his music told a different story: The man flat out rocked. Compare his playing to any of the early rockabilly guitarists like Scotty Moore or Cliff Gallup and the influence is obvious. Compare his playing to more recent guitarists and you’re confronted with the degree to which the influence of jazz, that all pervasive swing which always permeated his playing, has been leached out of not just rock, but modern music in general.

Some of Paul’s early, multi-tracked recordings with his wife, Mary Ford, sound like they come not just from another time but another planet. He created orchestral pop music years before Phil Spector and, I would argue, bent the world of sound into a nearly psychedelic prism of harmony and rhythm decades ahead of the likes of Brian Wilson or Pink Floyd. He wasn’t just ahead of his time; he was damn near inventing the future every time he went into the studio.

Les Paul

Les Paul

For anyone who can’t get past the trappings of 1940’s fashion or lyrical content, I would urge you to simply turn out the lights, turn up the music and pretend you’re listening to a record that came out last week. What you’ll hear is a man determined to do it his way, fools and consequences be damned; a scientist exploring the outer realms of sound as surely as Timothy Leary and B.F.Skinner would later explore the inner realms of consciousness; a musician of the highest order reeling and picking out songs of joy and wonder at volumes that lifted those songs into spheres undreamt of by the staid conservatives dominating the music of the day.

Still not convinced of the man’s conviction and dedication? Consider this: After living through a near-fatal car crash in 1948, doctor’s informed Paul that there was no way for them to rebuild his shattered elbow in a way that would allow him to regain movement, that in fact his arm would be permanently locked in whatever position they placed it in. Most people would have immediately thought about the everyday necessities of eating or bathing. Not Les Paul. Without blinking an eye, he told the doctors to set his arm at an angle, so he could cradle and pick his customized instrument with the least amount of trouble.

By contrast, Jim Dickinson was the hero of a much smaller universe, namely the storied musical community that grew up around a handful of record labels in Memphis, Tennessee during the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Barely out of his teens, Dickinson began doing session work at one of the emerging enclaves of southern soul, Chip Moman’s American Sound Studio. Shortly thereafter he added his honky-tonk piano and vocals to one the last singles for Sun Records, “Cadillac Man.”  In the Late 60’s Dickinson teemed up with fellow Memphis musicians to form “The Dixie Flyers” one of the all-time great session groups, providing backup for musicians ranging from Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave to Jerry Jeff Walker and Albert Collins. Dickinson and his band, which included legendary guitarist, dope fiend, raconteur Charlie Freeman, could do it all and then some: smooth jazz, funky R&B, and some uncategorizable blend that sounds a lot like punk rock played by members of a hard core country band on acid.

When the Rolling Stones dropped by Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama during their 69 tour of the states, Dickinson just happened to be in town. The Stones put the Memphis native to work, adding his elegant, understated piano to their finest ballad, “Wild Horses.” The infamous Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter” offers a brief glimpse of Dickinson, kicked back on a couch in the studio with Keith Richards, eyes closed, lost in the music as they listen to a playback of one of the song’s early mixes. In 71, Dickinson lent his talents to another masterpiece, of sorts, the Flamin Groovies’ proto-punk classic, “Teenage Head.”

Jim Dickinson

Jim Dickinson

By the early 70’s Dickinson was working mainly as a producer, nurturing local Memphis odd balls and outcasts to mid-wife such alternative touchstones as Big Star’s “Third” and Alex Chilton’s “Like Flies on Sherbert” as well as a classic set for reggae legend Toots Hebert, “Toots in Memphis.” In the eighties, he would befriend a new generation drawn to his outlaw image, producing the Replacements, Mojo Nixon and Seattle home-town heroes, Mudhoney.

As much as I love the man’s guest musician and production work, I’m convinced Dickinson’s greatest contribution is his 72 solo album, “Dixie Fried,” which I have no qualms singling out as one of the most important musical documents of the 20th century. Occupying a musical Twilight Zone somewhere between the Stone’s “Exile on Mainstreet,” “The Soft Parade” by the Doors and Tom Waits more off-beat efforts, the record offers the title track’s gospel rockabilly take on Carl Perkins’  classic tale of redneck madness; a Jim Morrisonesque spoken word version of Dylan’s “John Brown,” and the hillbilly funk of the obscure vaudeville piece “O How She Dances.” Both avant garde and ancient, filled with more soul, grit and mind-numbing weirdness than any 10 records you care to name, it stands as both a summation of everything that makes southern music special and a grand, rollicking party for all the dead bluesmen, war vets and old west gunslingers who move through its songs like guideposts to the end-of-days decades to come.

Like Les Paul, Dickinson never stopped doing what he loved most. He continued to record solo albums, including several with his sons, Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars. In the last several years he both played on and produced projects with the young singer-songwriter Amy Lavere, who’s own mix of blues, jazz and country-noir can be seen as a direct descendent of Dickinson’s early work.

As I said at the beginning, the loss of two creative freedom fighters in one week would seem to be cause for sorrow, but honestly, these two lived far too fully, too far off the beaten path on their own yellow brick roads, to mourn or feel any sense of loss. They had the courage to do what they were put on this earth to do, despite criticism, scorn, and the prejudices of their eras.

My world, for one, has been a far richer place for their having passed this way.


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