CULT CLASSIC: JAMES LUTHER DICKINSON-DIXIE FRIED.
Cult Classic: Luther Dickinson-Dixie Fried.
All too often, artists spend days, weeks and sometimes even months recording their debut album. Eventually, the album is complete, and it’s delivered to the record company. Nervously and expectantly the artist awaits as the record company plan a marketing campaign.
If the artist is signed to a major label, it will have the financial muscle and expertise to organise an effective marketing campaign. That should be the case.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case when James Luther Dickinson delivered his debut album Dixie Fried to Atlantic Records. By then, his relationship with Atlantic Record had become difficult. This was because James Luther Dickinson had been indiscreet in an interview with a Memphis’ newspaper. When word got back to Jerry Wexler, he was far from happy. From there, things went rapidly downhill.
As a result, Dixie Fried lay unreleased for over a year. When Dixie Fried was eventually released, the album passed record buyers by. All the hard work had been for nothing. It was a missed opportunity.
By then, James Luther Dickinson was better known as Jim Dickinson, and was forging a career as a producer. He was producing Ry Cooder when Dixie Fried was released Dixie Fried flopped. Jim Dickinson as became known as, went on to produce a wide range of artists. This included Big Star, Ry Cooder, Willy DeVille, Toots and The Maytals, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and in 1997 Bob Dylan. That same year, James Luther Dickinson released a new album.
After twenty-five years, James Luther Dickinson released the followup to Dixie Fried. This was his 1997 live album A Thousand Footprints in the Sand. By then, a new audience were discovering James Luther Dickinson’s music. He went on to release another five albums right up until his death in 2009.
Even today, a new generation of record buyers are discovering the James Luther Dickinson’s solo career. They’re familiar with his production work Ry Cooder, Big Star andToots and The Mayals, and want to discover the other side of James Luther Dickinson..his solo career.
Sadly, for far too long, James Luther Dickinson’s debut album Dixie Fried was unavailable on CD. This was recently rectified with a reissue of Dixie Fried by Future Days Recordings. Dixie Fried was released in 1972, when James Luther Dickinson. He had come a long way since his early years in Little Rock, Arkansas.
That was where James Luther Dickinson was on November 15th 1941. Growing up, his family moved from Little Rock, and spent time in two of America’s musical capitals, Chicago and Memphis. By then, James had discovered music, and was playing piano and guitar. Despite his love of music, when James graduated high school, he didn’t study music.
Instead, James Luther Dickinson headed to Baylor University, Waco in Texas as a drama major. However, it was at the University of Memphis that James graduated. That was also where he met one of his closest friends, music journalist Stanley Booth. The two men would enjoy a lifelong friendship. Both men would embark upon a career in music when they graduated, albeit on different sides of the fence.
Whilst Stanley Booth. became a music journalist, James Luther Dickinson embraced upon a career as a musician. By then, he was a veteran of many bands, that had played many different musical genres. Unlike many musicians, James could seamlessly switch between genres. This would stand him in good stead, as he worked first at Ardent Sound and then at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio, in Memphis. That was where James’ career as session player began in earnest. He would hone his chops by playing on countless sessions. One of James most memorable sessions was in 1966.
The Jesters were booked to record their single Cadillac Man, and the flip side My Babe. Usually, James Luther Dickinson would play piano on the session. This time was different. He became a ghost singer, and laid down the lead vocal on both sides. That was despite not being a member of the group. Ironically, Cadillac Man which was released on Sun Records, is now regarded as the last great single released by that famous label. It seemed that James was already making a name for himself in Memphis.
By the late sixties, James Luther Dickinson’s time at American Sound Studio was over. He was working at the Sound Of Memphis studio, which was run by Stan Kesler, a music industry veteran. That was where James and some Memphis based musicians decided to form a new band, The Dixie Flyers.
Their lineup featured a rhythm section of drummer Sammy Greason, bassist Tommy McGlure and guitarist Charlie Freeman. They were joined by organist Michael Utley and James on piano. The Dixie Flyers would work with everyone from James Carr, Hank Ballard and Japanese pop band, The Tempters. One of the most important sessions for The Dixie Flyers was recording Albert Collins’ debut album Trash Talkin’ in 1969. It was being produced by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. This would prove a crucial moment in The Dixie Flyers’ career.
Having heard The Dixie Flyers play, Jerry Wexler said: “I wish I could have a band like that to use in Miami.” Over the next few days, a deal was hatched that would see Jerry Wexler take The Dixie Flyers to Miami to become Atlantic Records’ house band.
Before the move to Miami, James Luther Dickinson was working with the Rolling Stones on a secret recording session at Memphis. This included playing the piano on Wild Horses, which featured on the Rolling Stones 1971 album Stick Fingers. This session proved to one of the last sessions James played on before heading to Miami, as part of Atlantic South’s studio band, The Dixie Flyers.
The Dixie Flyers left Sound Of Memphis, and headed to Miami. The early sessions took place in 1970 at Criteria Studio. That was where Tony Joe White was producing an Eric Quincy Tate album. His backing band were The Dixie Flyers. Things didn’t quite go to plan. Soon, though, things improved. By the time, The Dixie Flyers recorded with Jerry Jeff Walker for his Bein’ Free album and with Taj Mahal, they were in the groove. Everything was falling into place for The Dixie Flyers.
This was just as well. Their next session was for Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In The Dark album. Hot on the heels of working with the Queen Of Soul, The Dixie Flyers accompanied Carmen McCrae and then Lulu. They were already establishing a career as a top studio band. However, internal politics at Atlantic Records were causing problems.
Atlantic South was very much Jerry Wexler’s baby. Ahmet Ertegun thought Atlantic South was doomed to failure from the start. With the two top men at Atlantic Records divided over Atlantic South’s future, it was a worrying time for The Dixie Flyers. Especially, when their paycheques were late. When this happened, James became the band’s spokesman. Soon, everything that was going wrong, James was given the job of sorting it out. Fortunately, James had become friendly with Jerry Wexler during the Rolling Stones’ sessions. Unfortunately, James’ relationship with Tom Dowd was no longer what it had been. It seemed that factions were forming at Atlantic South.
Despite this, The Dixie Flyers were still working with some big names, including Brook Benton and then, Delaney and Bonnie and Dion. There was even talk that The Dixie Flyers would be working with Bob Dylan. The Dixie Flyers it seemed, were going up in the world.
That was when Jerry Wexler began pushing The Dixie Flyers to record an album. Other studio bands had done so, so why not The Dixie Flyers? Unlike Booker T and The MGs, The Dixie Flyers weren’t going to be an instrumental band. The big question was, who would be the vocalist? Sammy Creason wanted to become The Dixie Flyers’ vocalist, but James was chosen. This was the start of the problems.
Having already written some new songs written, The Dixie Flyers went into the studio, while Tom Dowd took charge of production. Things started well and rapidly went downhill after the recording of Old Time Used To Be. Having recorded the song, overdubbed parts were punched in by James and Charlie Freeman. This didn’t quite go to plan. The song was punched in at the wrong time, and resulted in an accidental psychedelic sound. As the band listened to the playback, Sammy McClure commented that if his friends back home heard the song, they would think: “I had started taking drugs.” Quick as a flash, James replied: “you did.” Sammy McClure didn’t talk to James and Charlie for several days. After this, The Dixie Flyers were a band divided.
Although The Dixie Flyers continued to work on sessions for Dave Crawford, Dee Warwick and Esther Phillips, they were no longer the same band. A wedge had been driven between the band. To make matters worse, Tom Dowd seemed to be encouraging James unorthodox approach to making music. This didn’t please the other band members. Something had to give.
So James took some time off, and headed to his house in the country to think. Over the next few days, he contemplated what the future held for him. On his return to Miami, it became apparent that other members of the rhythm section saw James as the problem. What made the situation doubly difficult, that allegedly Tom Dowd “hated” James. There was no way that James could continue as a member of The Dixie Flyers.
With a heavy heart, James phoned Jerry Wexler, to arrange a meeting. The situation had to be sorted out. James’ next phone call was to Tom Dowd, who was asked to band meeting. He said that: “I owe you that.” Now that the meeting was arranged, maybe the situation could be resolved.
Gradually, the whole story took shape. Soon, James said “if I am the problem, then let me offer you the solution. I am out.” With that, James was no longer a member of The Dixie Flyers. There was still a problem though.
James was still contracted to Atlantic Records. He proposed a solution, that the remanding six months of his recording contract be converted into a solo deal. The Dixie Flyers could then make the instrumental album that they wanted. Atlantic Records could the release or reject the albums. If James album was rejected, then Atlantic Records would pay for the recording sessions. Atlantic Records agreed, the former Dixie Flyer embarked upon his solo career.
Suddenly, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The problem that had been gnawing away at James’ was gone. Now he could get to work on his debut solo album. It was a new chapter in James’ career.
Eventually, James chose nine song for his debut solo album. He only cowrote the one song, The Judgement with Michael Utley. The rest of the album featured cover versions and traditional song.
Among the cover versions, were The Night Caps’ Wine; Paul Siebel’s Louise; Bob Dylan’s John Brown; Bob Frank’s Wild Bill Jones and Furry Lewis’ Casey Jones (On The Road Again). They joined a cover of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins’ The Strength Of Love and Carl Perkins and Howard Griffin’s Dixie Fried. The other song was a cover of the traditional song O How She Dances. These nine songs were recorded at four studios.
Given the situation with The Dixie Flyers, Jerry Wexler suggested that James might want to record his debut solo album in Muscle Shoals. He said no, that he would rather record it in Miami with The Dixie Flyers backing him. James also wanted Tom Dowd to produce the album. It was a big call, given James’ tattered relationship between The Dixie Flyers and Tom Dowd. Deep down, he hoped that The Dixie Flyers would produce a barnstorming performance for their swan-song with James.
Alas, the recording sessions didn’t go as smooth as James had hoped. Recording took place at three studios, Criteria Studios, Miami Beach, Ardent Recordings, Memphis and Sun Recording, Memphis. A huge cast of musicians worked on the album. This included The Dixie Flyers. Their lineup featured drummer Sammy Greason, bassist Tommy McGlure, guitarist Charlie Freeman and organist Michael Utley. Other musicians would be drafted in to play at the various sessions.
This included a rhythm section that featured drummer Tarp Tarrant, bassist Joe Gaston and guitarists Mike Ladd, Lee Baker. Teddy Paige, Gimmer Nicholson and Sid Selvidge. They were joined by organist Ken Wodley, pianist Abhy Galuten, percussionist Jimmy Crosthwait, saxophonist Charles Lawing and Terry Manning played the Moog. Jeff Newman added steel guitar, Jack Pennington fiddle and Dr. John played guitar and piano. Backing vocalists included Brenda Kay Patterson, Jeanie Greene, Mary Lindsay Dickinson, Mary Unobsky and Ginger Holiday. Tom Dowd co-produced the sessions with James, who played piano, guitar and lead vocals.
Some early sessions took place at Ardent Recordings, in Memphis.Then James returned to Criteria Studios, Miami, where he recorded several songs. Then James decided to return to Ardent Recordings in Memphis to do some overdubbing. Tom Dowd wasn’t sure about this, but eventually agreed. Eventually, James was allied to take the master tapes to Memphis, where the overdubbing took place. After this, James returned to Miami, where the album was completed in January 1971. A total of fifteen songs had been recorded. Some of these songs would feature on James’ debut album.
Usually, a few months would pass and then James’ debut album would be released. Unfortunately, James made a minor faux pax.
He was being interviewed in Memphis when he told a reporter a previously unheard story about Aretha Franklin. The story made it into the Memphis paper. What James couldn’t have expected, was someone to send a copy to Jerry Wexler.
He was furious. When James spoke to Jerry Wexler, he was screaming down the phone that the Queen of Soul would be upset. James thought that the matter would blow over. However, Aretha Franklin was one of Atlantic Records’ biggest names. Soon, James was persona non gratis at Atlantic Records.
Realising the gravity of the situation, James headed to New York to try and smooth things out. Things were too far gone. By then, James was now the most hated artist on Atlantic Records. The situation had snowballed out of control. Trying to dig his way out of the hole, James was advised by Danny Fields to spend more money on album. Maybe, this would give the album a bigger chance of success.
So he headed to Sun Recording in Memphis, and recorded Dixie Fried with Brenda Patterson. When James billed Atlantic Records for the studio time, they refused to pick up the tab. It was a similar case when James asked for Atlantic Records to pay for a photo shoot for the album cover. Atlantic Records refused. So James enlisted the help of a friend, Jere Cunningham, who just happened to be Stax Records’ official photographer. He shot the photo for the cover of the album, which was no entitled Dixie Fried. Now, the album, was ready for release.
Atlantic Records were in no hurry to record Dixie Fried. It lay unreleased for over a year. Then Lady Luck intervened. One night, Sam and Knox Phillips accompanied Jerry Wexler to Stanley Booth’s house. He was listening to a reel-to-reel tape of Dixie Fried. Sam Phillips liked the album, and encouraged Jerry Wexler to release Dixie Fried. Coming from such a well respected figure as Sam Phillips, this set Jerry Wexler thinking.
Eventually, Jerry Wexler decided that Atlantic Records should release Dixie Fried. The album was released in April 1972. By then, James Luther Dickinson had become producer Jim Dickinson. He was working with Ry Cooder when the album was released.
Sadly, James Luther Dickinson’s debut album Dixie Fried, was a low profile release. There wasn’t much of a promotional campaign. James gave a few interviews, but never played any concerts. To make matters worse there were some distribution problems, with record buyers struggling to find a copy of Dixie Fried. As a result, the album never came close to troubling the charts. For James Luther Dickinson, it was a disappointing time. All his hard work had been for nothing. Things could’ve been very different.
It seemed as if the release of Dixie Fried was somewhat half-hearted. Atlantic Records didn’t seem willing to spend money promoting Dixie Fried. If they had maybe the album would’ve found the audience it deserved. However, James Luther Dickinson was out of favour Atlantic Records. They still hadn’t forgiven James for upsetting the ‘Queen of Soul.’
Ironically, after Young, Gifted and Black was certified gold in 1972, Aretha Franklin’s career hit the buffers. Only Sparkle in 1976, was certified gold. Her career was in the decline for the rest of the seventies. The Queen had lost her crown. Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson was forging a successful career as a producer, producing a dozen albums for Ry Cooder and Big Star’s 1973 album Third.
Just like Big Star’s Third, James Luther Dickinson’s debut album Dixie Fried would later find the audience it so richly deserved. Nowadays, Dixie Fried is something of a cult album, showcasing the considerable skills of the multitalented singer, songwriter, musician and producer James Luther Dickinson.
Wine opens Dixie Fried, and literally explodes into life. The rhythm accompany James’ powerhouse of vocal. It’s accompanied all the way by soaring gospel-tinged harmonies and a pounding piano. There’s no stopping James and his band. They lock into a groove and play as if their lives depend upon it. Rock ’n’ roll is to the fore on this hard rocking cover of The Nightcaps’ song. Especially, as a blistering guitar solo is unleashed. It’s joined by a weeping guitar that’s straight out of Nashville. Still, James is combining power and passion, while his band drive and power the arrangement along. Meanwhile, James draws inspiration from Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, to create a truly irresistible song.
Understated describes the introduction to The Strength Of Love. As a piano plays, rolls of drums accompany James delivers a heartfelt vocal. Gospel-tinged harmonies accompany him, growing in power and emotion. Behind James, a weeping steel guitar joins the rhythm section. Together, they add to the drama as James and his backing vocalists play leading roles. The result is a beautiful, moving song where Southern Soul, gospel and country is combined by James and his band.
Straight away, the country influence shines through on Louise. It sounds as if it’s been recorded in Nashville. James’ vocal sounds not dissimilar to Jerry Lee Lewis. The mid-tempo arrangement is anchored by the rhythm section. Meanwhile, a piano, organ and duelling, weeping guitar accompany James lived-in. Later, a rocky guitar and fiddle are added as this tragic tale unfolds. James brings the lyrics to life, with his drawling vocal
John Brown is an anti-war song written by Bob Dylan. The bass is plucked, before the drums, percussion and guitars enter. They set the scene for James vocal. Again, it’s a drawl, as it grows in power. Behind him, a fiddle weaves in and out, as guitar licks punctuate the arrangement. Still, the percussion plays, and is almost omnipresent. James has dawned the role of storyteller, and delivers the lyrics with power, passion and emotion. As the guitars weep and the fiddle plays, it’s obvious the story isn’t going to have a happy ending. Sadly, it doesn’t, and the soldier’s mother finds her son disabled and disfigured asks: “oh son what have they done?” By then, the song has been reinvented James and his band. It’s truly moving, especially as James sings: “before they turned to go, he called his mother close, and dropped a medal into her band.”
Dixie Fried the Carl Perkins rockabilly standard was cut by James at Sun Recordings. He was joined by Brenda Patterson, who added backing vocals. James and Lee Baker play all the instruments. Straight away, there’s a New Orleans’ sound to the song, as the piano, rhythm section and guitar combine. As the bass powers the arrangement along, the piano is pounded and a scorching guitar is unleaded. Brenda Patterson’s backing vocal soars above the arrangement, as James delivers a fast talking jive on Dixie Fried. With its fusion of R&B, rock, soul and gospel, it’s a song that’s worthy of lending its name to the album.
From the opening bars, it’s obvious something special is unfolding on The Judgement. It’s reminiscent of Dr John’s jazzier albums. James delivers a world weary vocal and plays the piano. Behind him, a subtle sultry saxophone plays, as the bass plays and the drummer marks time. A jazzy guitar, bass and the saxophone augment the piano as James delivers a lived-in vocal. They play their part in this late night, smokey sounding song, where R&B meets jazz.
O How She Dances finds James dawning the role of circus barker. Behind him, the arrangement is understated but mesmeric. Soon, the arrangement grows in power as James delivers a growling vocal. Drums are panned left, while a myriad of guitars and percussion are panned right. This leaves the middle of the arrangement clear for James, what’s one part soliloquy, to one part growling vocal. His fast talking, vocal that’s tinged with humour, reinvents this traditional song. Having said that, it’s the weakest song on the Dixie Fried.
Wild Bill Jones is a piano lead ballad, where a weeping a guitar and fiddle accompany James slow, wistful vocal. A chirping guitar sits at the front of the arrangement, as James plays piano and delivers a vocal that again, is reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis. Later, this country ballad becomes a singalong, as James and the backing vocalists unite. Together, they create another memorable song that’s a reminder of James Luther Dickinson’s skills a singer, musician and producer.
Casey Jones (On The Road Again) closes Dixie Fried. The piano locks into a groove with the rhythm section. Atop the arrangement, James delivers a languid, rueful vocal. By then, a mesmeric piano has been panned left and pushed back in the mix. It drifts in and out. Meanwhile, James’ vocal takes centre-stage as his vocal almost becomes a vamps. Soon, the rhythm section, guitar and piano enjoy their moment in the sun. When the vocal drops out, they showcase their considerable talents, during the rest of the track. That’s no surprise, given James had chosen some top session players to accompany him on Dixie Fried.
Released in 1972, Dixie Fried failed to find the audience it deserved. It wasn’t James Luther Dickinson’s fault. Instead, Atlantic Records failed to promote the album properly, and the album failed to sell. Dixie Fried never came close to troubling the charts. By then, James Luther Dickinson had become Jim Dickinson, and was forging a career as a successful producer and was going up in the world.
Jim Dickinson was producing a Ry Cooder album when Dixie Fried was released in April 1972. He would go on to produce twelve albums with Ry Cooder. A year earlier in 1971, The Rolling Stones had released their new album Sticky Finger. It featured James Luther Dickinson’s piano playing on Wild Horses. Suddenly, with his production work and playing with the Rolling Stones, Jim Dickinson’s star was in the ascendancy.
Despite his production work, and working as a songwriter and musician, still James Luther Dickinson hadn’t given up his dream of enjoying a successful solo career. Twenty-five years after the release of Dixie Fried, James Luther Dickinson released his 1997 live album A Thousand Footprints in the Sand. Five years later, in 2002, he released his sophomore studio album Free Beer Tomorrow.
By then, a new audience were discovering James Luther Dickinson’s music. He went on to release another four albums right up until his death in 2009. However, his finest album is Dixie Fried, a melting pot of musical genres and influences.
Americana, country, jazz, gospel, jazz, rock and soul shine through on Dixie Fried. So do the influence of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Dr John. Each of these artists influence James Luther Dickinson, as with the help of a multitalented band and backing vocalists, he records what’s a potent and heady brew, Dixie Fried, which is a true hidden gem of an album. Maybe somewhat belatedly, Dixie Fried, a musical potpourri of genres and influences will find the audience James Luther Dickinson’s cult classic so richly deserves, and should’ve enjoyed in 1972.
Cult Classic: Luther Dickinson-Dixie Fried.