“Diabolical trickery.” That’s the phrase producer Jim Dickinson uses, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, to describe his methods for getting the best from a recording artist. In a career that’s spanned nearly 40 years, the longtime Memphis resident has applied those tricks to a host of seminal albums, including Big Star’s Third, the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me and Toots Hibbert’s Toots in Memphis.
An integral cog in the Memphis and Muscle Shoals music scenes during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Dickinson made his mark first as a session player, appearing on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Arlo Guthrie, the Rolling Stones and countless other artists. Along the way, he soaked up ideas from such legendary figures as Sam Phillips, Jerry Wexler and Lenny Waronker. In 1972 he released a solo album, Dixie Fried, which has since become a cult classic. Not long after that he co-founded Mudboy and the Neutrons, a down-and-dirty ensemble that split the difference between Memphis madness and Mississippi Delta blues.
Dickinson has made his biggest contribution to music, however, in the role of producer. In addition to the work mentioned above, he manned the boards for such stylistically diverse artists as Ry Cooder, Mudhoney and Steve Forbert.
At the time Performing Songwriter caught up with him in 2005, he had just completed production work on a new album by John Hiatt, and was applying the final touches to an album by his sons, Luther and Cody’s band, the North Mississippi Allstars. Dickinson passed away on August 15, 2009, and we salute the indelible mark he made on the music world.
You used a new type of digital recording equipment on the album you just completed with John Hiatt. Can you talk about what it is?
It’s called a Sonoma [24 Direct Stream Digital recording and editing system]. I don’t know any of the technical aspects of it, but I know it’s linear, rather than frame by frame. And it’s not just digital; it’s the best sound reproduction I’ve ever heard, bar none. It’s like being in the room with the sound source. The technology isn’t all that new—DBX, I think, had the same technology about 10 years ago. And there was a digital radio station that was on the air for about a minute, in Boston, that used the same thing. I’m just not technically-oriented enough to explain the process. Sony has had it for some time, and they used it on all their remasters—the Dylan stuff, the Stones reissues, all the Super Audio CD stuff. But we were the first to use the actual unit to do a multi-track studio session. We had one of the developers with us, and it was an incredible experience. There’s a real sensitivity to the process that you don’t normally get.
Will the difference be detectable on a standard CD?
Yes. When you pull it down, there’s still an obvious difference. And hopefully we’re going to put out a Super Audio CD for this album, too—one that will be two-leveled.
You were very quick to latch onto digital technology. That wasn’t the case with lots of producers.
That’s right. Ry Cooder did the first all-digital rock album, with Bop Till You Drop, which I didn’t work on. But he and I did Long Riders right after that. They still had the 3M [32-track digital] machine at Amigo Studios, and we mixed the cuts that were not in the movie—that were only on the album—with the 3M process. At that time I had never heard anything like it. So yeah, I embraced it as fast as I could.
The argument I have with my friends who are analog purists is, “OK, what are you manufacturing? You’re manufacturing a CD. It’s going to be digitized. Wouldn’t you prefer to digitize it yourself, and be in control of the process, rather than have somebody downstream digitize it?” If you take on the digital process as soon as you can get it, and work with it, your downstream product is not going to sound that digitized, any more than any other CD does.
What do you make of all this talk about analog tape becoming extinct?
While we were cutting the session, that was the day they locked the door of the last factory that produces analog tape. The phone was ringing all day long. Don Smith called me from Los Angeles, and another guy I know on the West Coast called me literally in tears. Somebody will bring it back, and begin making it, and it’ll cost twice as much.
Frankly, ProTools was a big step backwards, in audio. It’s very easy to use, and it’s actually a composing tool, I think. The hi-resolution stuff sounds a lot better, but if you sit there and listen to it for 10 hours, working on it all day long, you feel like you’ve been beat in the face with a rubber hose. That’s what this Sonoma does not do. After about a week, I asked everybody in the room, “Is it only me, or is there anybody in this room who is experiencing listening fatigue?” And no one was. The engineer was literally leaning into the speakers. It’s that different, and the possibility that that is out there in digital technology is reassuring. Because audio, in my opinion, has been going downhill since disco, in terms of what the public is willing to accept. And rap, of course, is a devastating blow to acoustics, as was punk rock. But there was a way around that. And in rap there’s a way around it. You can make a hi-fidelity recording of a low fidelity sound, and it’s more pleasant than a bad recording of a lo-fidelity sound.
Let’s talk a bit about your background. You were sort of shuttling back and forth between Memphis and Muscle Shoals during the late ’60s and early ’70s as a session player. That must have been a great experience.
Yeah. That was kind of a natural thing to do at the time, especially for a session player. The two cities were kind of like a seesaw—when one was up, the other was down, and vice-versa. So if things dried up in Memphis there was generally something happening in Muscle Shoals. I had been working with Dan Penn during some of that period, which made that very natural. He was one of the people kind of trapped in the triangle between Memphis and Nashville and Muscle Shoals. Eddie Hinton, too—Hinton would drive back and forth just to see what was happening.
Did you take things from those years—from those experiences—that later affected your production work?
Most definitely. That’s how I learned it. I worked with a lot of different people up to the early ’70s—some great producers—but it was all different. Jerry Wexler, Sam Phillips … but I couldn’t see the similarity. I myself had done production work by that point, but I really didn’t have a handle on what I was doing. It wasn’t until I worked with Lenny Waronker, in the early ’70s, that it all made sense to me.
Why was that?
There was something about watching Lenny work that put it all into perspective. There are producers who jump up and down, and scream and holler, and rearrange everything, and play all the instruments, and do all that stuff, but that, to me, isn’t production. The role of the producer should be invisible. When it’s really happening, you can’t see it. What Lenny does is really invisible, but it affects everyone in the room. That’s not to say the producer himself should be invisible. The producer has to be a big presence. I honestly feel that I can affect a session just by my physical presence, and when I can’t do that any more, I’ll stop. You should be able to walk into the room and change everything, without saying a word. I’ve seen Lenny do that, and I’ve seen Wexler do it over and over again. Sam Phillips couldn’t help but do it. Johnny Vincent was a genius at it, and Huey Meaux could do it over the telephone. Everybody does it differently.
You played keyboards during the sessions for the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” That must have been a seminal experience as well.
It was. When I watched the Stones, it was like, “OK, who do you suppose is doing this right, and who do you suppose is doing it wrong? I think they’re the ones who maybe have gotten the picture (laughs).” I would never have been able to work with Alex [Chilton], for instance, had I not seen the Stones at work. The spontaneity of capturing the moment, where you actually pull the song together for the first time—there’s a magic there that never happens again. You never get it back. You never get the feeling of that first playback again.
That goes hand-in-hand, of course, with your feelings about keeping boredom at bay in the studio.
Absolutely. Boredom will kill a record. It’s my theory that misery sticks to the tape, and the longer things take, the more misery you compound. Some people don’t get that. And some people, who shall remain nameless, don’t want the groove, or the living part of the song. They want what they’ll even verbalize as “post-groove.” They want the musicians to be tired, because then they’re easier to control. They want something where the musicians aren’t just playing for their own pleasure. But that’s exactly what I do want. I really learned that with Dan Penn on a Ronnie Milsap session. There’s Ronnie—blind, you know—singing into the darkness, and singing his heart out, but after three or four passes, he couldn’t help it. You could hear the boredom start to creep into his voice.
You mentioned Chilton. The Big Star album you produced—Third—is often talked about as a high-water mark for both you and for him.
That was a real creative peak, for me. I think that’s a record no one else could have made, and I think I got more out of Alex than anybody else ever got. I know it’s the last set of consistent performances he ever delivered.
There’s something about that album that feels very fragile. In some ways it sounds as if everything is on the verge of falling apart.
It was about decomposition, for sure. All the relationships were deteriorating. The band had really broken up, and Alex’s relationship with Ardent was deteriorating. And Stax was going out of business. Everything was falling apart, right in front of our faces, and that is what we documented. Of course, the album has never been presented in any kind of [proper] sequence. Most of the sequences cluster the rock songs together, and the more depressing, darker songs together, and that’s not the way either of us intended it to be. I don’t think, overall, that it’s as dark a piece as it’s been turned into. “Take Care,” for instance, is supposed to be the last cut. That’s one of the few things Alex and I agreed on. “Thank You Friends” was supposed to be first, and “Take Care” was supposed to be last. That was Alex’s idea of an optimistic statement, but it is an optimistic statement, nonetheless. The darkness associated with the record is overdone.
Chilton maintains that the album was taken out of his hands at a critical juncture. He seems disappointed and bitter about that.
It was. And it had to be. Otherwise it would never have been finished. The relationship between himself and [engineer] John Fry had deteriorated to the point that they could barely be in the room together. I think one of the main reasons the record has endured is because of what it sounds like, and that’s 100 percent the result of the genius of John Fry. The record broke John’s heart. It’s the last record he ever did, top to bottom. But—and this may be cruel of me to say—I got the sound of Fry’s heart breaking. At the point at which it was taken away from Alex—which it was—Alex had done his part. Fry’s part remained to be done, and that was the only way we could do that. There was a lot going on for John, and Alex was being Alex. They couldn’t have mixed it together. Alex would have destroyed the record. [The Chilton solo album] Like Flies on Sherbert is living proof of that. I feel about the mix on Like Flies on Sherbert the way he feels about the mix on Third.
I could have saved that record. Alex mixed that record with Richard Roseborough, and the mix is atrocious. I know people who love that record, but there’s another record inside there. You could describe my production technique as “kissing the toad.” Sometimes you kiss the toad and you get the prince, and sometimes the prince just isn’t in there. On Like Flies on Sherbert, there’s a prince inside that toad, and it hasn’t come out yet.
What exactly do you mean when you say you got something from Chilton that no one had gotten before?
You can hear Alex enjoying himself on [Third]. I defy anyone to find another place where you can hear that. Other places you can hear him getting off because he’s being destructive, or snide, or counter-whatever, but Third is different. On “Femme Fatale,” for instance, you can hear the man actually enjoying singing a song. There’s not a bad performance on that record. With the stuff Alex produces himself, now, you’re lucky if there are two or three places where he’s really being Alex. He’ll give you those moments, but he doesn’t give you the whole song anymore. But he did do that on Third.
Another great album you produced is the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. You’ve said many times that you learned more from the Replacements, during that experience, than they learned from you.
Yeah. I learned a lot from Paul Westerberg, and a whole lot from [bassist] Tommy Stinson, because Tommy was so intuitive. He was 18 years old, and I really let him produce that record whenever I didn’t know what to do. If I was puzzled by a situation, I would put Tommy in the position where he had to make a choice, because his instincts were so sharp. And Westerberg … he’s been mad at me for years for saying this, but he’s by far the most sensitive of any of those post-punk artists I worked with.
“Sensitive” in what sense of the word?
In the sense of what he gave me on the microphone. He just reached inside and pulled it out. At the end of “The Ledge,” he’s literally weeping. That’s a live vocal and a live guitar. The track itself was flawed, and he came out of the little booth I had put him in—we called it “The Dungeon”—and said, “I don’t have to do that again, do I?” And I said, “No, Paul, I’ll fix it.” He was obviously tearing it out of his soul. I sat there and felt a little guilty for a second, but then I thought, “Hell, Quincy Jones sits there and listens to Michael Jackson sob; what’s the difference?”
That’s the only Replacements album on which Westerberg essentially handles all the guitar-work, and those performances are among his best. Did you have anything to do with getting that out of him?
The rhythm guitar was the tough thing, because there was a hole in the band without Bob. [Note: Prior to the sessions, the band’s lead guitarist, Bob Stinson, was fired from the group.] Westerberg got mad at me for saying this, but … I’m real dyslexic, almost to the point where I’m crippled by it, and I recognize it in other people. And he’s obviously dyslexic. And he would play rhythm parts backwards, literally. He would play the five-chord for the four-chord, and the four-chord for the five-chord. When I realized that every take they did was going to be different—that even the words were going to be different, every time—I just kept it all, and put it together with a Fairlight. Much of the rhythm guitar on that record is a Fairlight, where every time he would play the “five,” I would fire the “four,” and every time he played the “four,” I would fire the “five.” Billy Gibbons came in and caught me doing that, and it changed his whole creative process (laughs). At that point, ZZ Top had been using the Fairlight for drums only. Gibbons had never thought about using it for rhythm guitar.
Let’s talk about your work with your sons in their band, the North Mississippi Allstars. It’s probably safe to assume that some strange dynamics come into play there.
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s pretty strange. They know some of my tricks, but they don’t know all of them. This new record, which hopefully we have just finished, is quite a record.
Did you approach this one differently from 51 Phantom, the previous album you produced for them?
Very differently. It’s taken the band back to being a trio, which is my favorite way for them to be. There are a good many guest artists on it. There’s a pretty deep concept to this record. It’s Luther’s comment on some dead friends, frankly—people who had some influence on him, musical and otherwise. It’s got Lucinda Williams on one cut, and Robert Randolph on a cut, and local rapper Al Kapone on two. It’s also got the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on a cut, and Otha Turner’s drummers on three or four. It’s a very drum-oriented record.
Did it take you a while to warm to the idea that Luther and Cody were going to pursue music as a career?
Well, it did with Luther. By the time Cody started playing, I had accepted it. I tried to discourage Luther, and when I realized I couldn’t, I figured I had better help. He really had no other interests. And God knows what Cody would’ve done without music. He has such a gift. You know, Luther went out and got what he has; he literally learned it all. Whereas Cody, when he was 12 years old, just sat down and started playing like a grown man. It was amazing. Some of the stuff he did, not only do I not know where he learned it, I don’t even know where he heard it—all this jazz stuff and so forth. He’s never listened to any of that kind of music, and yet he can execute it all. And he could do that when he was a baby. One of my regrets, with them, is that I never gave Cody time to be an amateur. He just started being a pro when he was about 13.
Do you and Cody and Luther find it easy to sort of take off the father/son hats, and put on the producer/artist hats?
Well, we’ve done that all along. It’s the family business. In some ways it’s more difficult to produce them because they’re my sons, but of course in other ways it’s definitely an advantage. I think I understand them. With Cody, in particular—well, really, with either of them—to get what they have that’s unique, you really have to sneak up on them. That may be easier for me to do as a father, or it may be harder. I don’t know. I’m a pretty blood-thirsty producer. My obligation is to the project. The music is what I’m trying to get, and it’s the artist’s record that I want. I want to pull it out of them, but none of them wants to give it up. No artist wants to give it up, because once they stand at the microphone and deliver, it’s no longer theirs, personally. The hardest thing to do is to get them to walk from the control room to the microphone. It’s like a wrestler walking into the ring. Any wrestler will tell you that that’s what’s hard—walking through the people to the ring. As a producer, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Something you’ve talked about in the past is the importance of the spaces between notes. Can you elaborate a bit about that?
Art is about contrasts. If you ask someone—especially in the case of a young band, back in the punk rock days, or even now—if you ask “What do you want your record to be?” basically it will come down to one thing: They want it to be loud. Well, it’s all going to be the same volume. It’s going to come up to zero on the VU meter, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a symphony orchestra or a violin or a rock guitar—it’s going to be the same volume. So what you want is not volume—it’s apparent volume. And how you get apparent volume is by surrounding it with silence. If you’ve got no silence, you’ve got no volume. There’s a moment on the Replacements record that people have talked to me about over the years. They say, “There’s this second just before the strings hit on ‘Can’t Hardly Wait,’” and what they’re talking about is just this micro-second of digital silence, before Westerberg breathes. You hear him breathe in, and then you hear the strings hit. That’s what they’re talking about, and if that silence wasn’t there, nobody would know.
—By Russell Hall
Lead Photo by C. Taylor Crothers