Jim Dickinson with Baldwin M1 piano

Gibson.com is pleased to present “The Gibson Classic Interview,” where we open our archives and share with you interviews we’ve done over the years with some of the world’s biggest artists. This week, we revisit Russell Hall’s 2007 interview with Memphis legend Jim Dickinson.

“I’ve tried to create things that have some shelf life,” says Jim Dickinson. “Great records endure because they’re art. Art is supposed to last, and I’ve never tried to do anything else but make art.”
As a producer, session player, and recording artist in his own right, Dickinson has successfully pursued that ambition for four decades. An integral cog in the Memphis and Muscle Shoals scenes in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Dickinson played piano on countless albums—including recordings by Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.
In 1972 he released a solo album, titled Dixie Fried, which has since become a cult classic. Afterwards he turned his attention to production work, manning the boards for such classics as Big Star’s Sister Lovers, the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, and Toots & the Maytals’ Toots in Memphis.
Now in his late sixties, Dickinson remains as active as ever. Working at his legendary Zebra Ranch Studio in Independence, Mississippi, he continues to produce albums for a variety of artists, most notably his sons’ band the North Mississippi Allstars.
In the past two years he’s also released two superb albums of his own, both of which prominently feature his barrelhouse piano style. Titled, respectively, Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger and Killers from Space, the recordings consists of rough-and-tumble nuggets from what Dickinson calls “the jukebox of my mind.”

You recently set up a Baldwin M1 in your Zebra Ranch studio. What are your thoughts about the instrument so far?

It’s quite a different experience. I’ve never had a new piano before. It’s an amazing instrument—just beautiful. It’s candy apple red, like a ’58 Chevy convertible. It’s big for a baby grand, but small for a grand, which makes it perfect for recording. In a recording situation a grand piano is really too much. The harmonics and the overtone are so strong they wipe out an acoustic guitar, or an instrument like that. But this piano is perfect.

Can you characterize the sound—what makes it distinctive?

It’s got a really good bottom end—really loud and bright. And that may be because it’s red, in all seriousness. For years my favorite studio piano in Memphis has been a Baldwin grand in Sam Phillipsstudio. It’s had the crap beaten out of it, and they don’t really maintain it, but it just keeps getting better and better. This piano sounds like a smaller version of that one. It has a brightness that’s not usually associated with grand pianos.

You did lots of session work in the ’60s. Did you have to change your style of playing a lot, to accommodate the various artists?

You do have to be adaptable to do that kind of work. Working for Atlantic, we would go from Jerry Jeff Walker to Aretha Franklin to Carmen McCrae within a single week—covering everything from rockabilly to reggae. What I do as a piano player is really simple and rudimentary. For that reason I can pretty much play with anyone, regardless of genre. I’m not a jazz player, for instance, but I’ve got a little jazz trick that I do. And the same is true of country music. I’m not really a country player, but I’ve got some country tricks. In session playing, the piano—certainly in rock music if not most pop music—should be colorless. You should be able to detect it only when you take it out, when it’s missing.

Do you read music?

No. I’m completely untrained, as far as that goes. I have really bad eyesight—a multiple vision problem that makes reading music impossible. I’ve learned to play not so much by ear as by memory. The shape of the keyboard—the pattern of the black and white keys, that repetition—creates some kind of pattern my brain understands. I’ve found that if I trust myself, I understand, subconsciously, the best note to play next. That doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I do it. I don’t play scales. I learned to play from sheet music by reading the guitar chords. I play an octave and a major triad—that’s what I start with—and then move from there.

Your most famous session is the one you did with the Rolling Stones on “Wild Horses.” Ian Stewart was the Stones’ regular piano player at that time. Why didn't he play on that song?

I didn’t know the reason, for 10 years afterwards. As soon as they started doing the song, Stu got up from the piano and started packing the gear, as if they were leaving. I was standing with Jerry Wexler, and Jagger came over to me and said, [affecting Jagger’s accent], “So, I assume now we need a keyboardist.” Wexler said, “We could call Barry Beckett.” And I said, “Jerry, I don’t think that’s what he means.” So I just sat and started playing. Ten years later I was in New York, in a bar at the Plaza Hotel, and Stu was there having a drink. I said to him, “Man, I’m not complaining, because it literally gave me a career, but why didn’t you play on that song?” And he said, “Mate, I don’t play minor chords. I’m a ‘boozie woozie’ piano player. When I’m playing with the lads on-stage, and a minor chord comes by, I lifts me hands in protest.” So that was it. The song begins in B-minor, and Stu wasn’t having any part of that.

Did you take anything away from that session that you were able to use later in your own production work?

Yes. Spontaneity. Capturing the moment. As an R&B player, which is what I was then, you play lines and patterns—things that are very rote. And you play the song until you get it right. You listen to the playback, and you discuss the playback, and you change your part accordingly. But the Rolling Stones don’t do that. The first time they got through a song without a major mistake, with the emphasis on major, that was the take. Charlie Watts would get up from the drums and walk away. No one ever said, “Should we do that again? Can we do that better? What do you think about your part?” So they ended up with a spontaneous moment of creation—where, literally, the first time the song was played correctly, that became the master. I saw them do three songs that way. Two of them were written there in the studio.

Which songs were those?

One was “Brown Sugar.” You can’t imagine how nonchalantly Jagger wrote that. It was already a fully developed song as far as the music went, but there were no lyrics. Jagger sat down with one of those green steno pads, and filled up three pages. It took him 45 minutes. Then he stood up and sang. It was unbelievable.
In the case of “Wild Horses,” there was already the skeleton of a song, which was a lullaby that Keith had written for his first son, Marlon, who had just been born. Well, Marianne Faithfull had just gotten involved with someone else—some old royalty guy—and that was in the news. And Jagger was like a teenager about it, like a lovesick puppy. So he re-wrote the song and made it about her. He took a bit more time on that one, although not much more—maybe an hour or so. It really was an amazing thing to see.

What have you been working on lately?

Just yesterday we finished another [North Mississippi] Allstars record. Actually this will be the first record we’ve used the new Baldwin on. I play most of the piano. Kurt Clayton, a local pianist who plays like Billy Preston, is also on one track. The record is going to be called Hernando. It’s coming out in January.