By John Harrold
The new year was just a couple of days old when news filtered through from Nashville that country music had lost one of it’s most beloved characters. The dimunitive performer with the big heart and even bigger personality made a huge impression on all who knew him or had the privilege of hearing him perform.
Little Jimmy Dickens was admitted to hospital on Christmas Day and passed away on Friday, January 2nd, 2015. Jimmy, or James Cecil Dickens, had celebrated his 94th birthday on December 19th and had given his last Grand Ole Opry performance the following night.
Jimmy was born in Bolt, West Virginia, in 1920, the oldest of thirteen children of a coal-mining father. He was raised by his grandparents in a musical family. His first excursion into the entertainment world was on the roster of a local radio station.
He soon gave up his university course and toured the country working at numerous radio stations and performing with the stars who appeared on the programmes, using the name Jimmy the Kid. He caught the ear of Roy Acuff, one of country music’s biggest stars at the time, who recommended him to both the Grand Ole Opry and to Columbia Records.
In September, 1948, two events changed his Jimmy’s life – he signed with Columbia and joined the Opry.
From then on, Jimmy Dickens star was on the rise. Inspired by his short stature, he started using the name ‘Little Jimmy Dickens’ around this time – he was just 4’ 11’’ in height. He is also credited with being the first country performer to wear brightly coloured suits lavishly decorated with rhinestones – the so-called ‘Nudie suits’, designed and made by Los Angeles-based tailor, Nudie Cohn.
Recordings with Columbia saw Jimmy almost immediately reach the upper echelons of the country charts. His speciality was novelty songs with releases like A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed, Take an Old Cold ‘Tater (And Wait), Country Boy, Out Behind the Barn and Hillbilly Fever all reaching the Top Ten in the early 1950s.
Hank Williams nicknamed Jimmy ‘Tater’ after one of these hits, a nickname which stuck with Jimmy for the rest of his life.
Other recordings released by Jimmy included I’m Little, But I’m Loud, Walk, Chicken, Walk, Sidemeat and Cabbage, Stinky Pass That Hat Around and Raisin’ the Dickens. Jimmy had his only Number One in 1965 with May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose, another novelty song which stayed at the top of the charts for two weeks.
In between, in the late 1950s, Jimmy recorded some rockabilly tracks but these failed to make any great impression in the charts. Following the success of Bird of Paradise, Jimmy had a string of minor chart hits over the following six or seven years including Who Licked the Red Off Your Candy, Country Music Lover, Raggedy Ann and Try It, You’ll Like It.
Jimmy left the Grand Ole Opry in 1957 to tour with the Philip Morris Country Music Show. For decades, he performed up to 300 shows a year. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he changed record labels, spending time with both Decca and United Artists.
In 1975, he was warmly welcomed back to the fold of the Grand Ole Opry and became one of it’s most popular and respected members until his death. He welcomed many new members to the Opry over the years.
One of the most unusual inductions must have been that of Trace Adkins. Trace stood six foot six to Jimmy’s four foot eleven but Jimmy found a solution – he used a stepladder on stage!
In recent years, Jimmy’s career got a new lease of life when he became friends with country star – and fellow West Virginian – Brad Paisley. He appeared on a number of Brad’s albums and videos and on the Opry stage with him.
Jimmy had a long line of jokes – many self-deprecating – as part of his stage show and his collaboration with Brad showcased this side of him. He also participated in a series of comic interludes with co-hosts Brad and Carrie Underwood during the CMA Awards shows.
Jimmy Dickens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983. Jimmy is survived by his wife, Mona, whom he married on Christmas Eve, 1971, and two daughters, Pamela and Lisa.
A public Celebration of Life service for Little Jimmy Dickens was held at the Grand Ole Opry House, with many of today’s country stars turning up to pay tribute to him in the place he loved so much. He is buried in Nashville.