I would like to spotlight an old friend who has been on the world famous "Grand Ole Opry" for over 60 years. "Little" Jimmy Dickens joined the grand old show in 1948 and continues to shine, when Saturdays roll around. Jimmy, known to his many friends and peers as "Tater," is an icon.
Really, it's almost impossible to believe "Tater" Dickens has been able to hang in with the "Opry" crowd for such a long period of time, especially with so many changes taking place at the oldest country music show-case in history. Incidentally, Jimmy received the handle, "Tater,” from Hank Williams, Sr., after Dickens had enjoyed a super hit with a song titled, "Take An Old Cold Tater and Wait" in 1949. Jimmy will hit 90 years-of-age on December 19. He was born James Cecil Dickens on December 19, 1920 in Bolt, West Virginia. He was placed in the Country Music Hall-of-Fame in 1982.
Jimmy's biggest hit made the scene in 1965, titled "May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.” The recording went to Number One in the "country" charts, and was in the Top Ten in the "pop" listings. My old friend, the late Neil Merritt, wrote this ditty, inspired by similar comedic statements made regularly by Johnny Carson on his "Tonight" show on NBC-TV.
Since "Tater" has been a big success in country music for over 60 years, he has managed to accumulate a huge, devoted fan base. During his prime, no one could out-shine him on stage. He was...and still is...a show stopping "scene stealer.”
In 1970, Jimmy recorded a tear-jerking recitation titled "Raggedy Ann.” The lyrics spotlighted a dad talking to a "Ragged Ann" doll that had been the favorite toy of his recently deceased baby daughter. I still get requests for this chilling recording from time to time. On stage, Jimmy always holds a Raggedy Ann doll while performing the gut-wrenching recitation. Most times, you can actually hear the audience, both men and women, sobbing. He still closes all of his shows with "Raggedy Ann,” bringing the house down as he moans through the closing lyrics.
While I was interviewing Waylon Jennings many years ago, I asked him about one of his "toughest" moments on stage. He replied: "Without a doubt, it's when you're set to follow 'Little' Jimmy Dickens on a stage show. When that little feller walks on stage carrying that damned doll, you know you're set for another 15 minutes in the wings before you can follow him. As a matter of fact, you don't want to follow him. Your eyes are red, and your nose is 'running' after listening to him wail away at those hurtin' lyrics, and you don't want the audience to see you while you're obviously 'in-mourning.' Besides all of that, anything following 'Little' Jim and 'Raggedy Ann' is almost a sacrilege. You get behind the mike to sing one of your upbeat honky-tonk songs, and the audience is weeping as if they were at a wake."
With a laugh, Waylon added: "It ought to be written in the by-laws of the musicians-union that Jimmy Dickens will not be allowed to be on stage, at any time, with that damned Raggedy Ann doll. It just ain't fair!"
By the way...in case you didn't know...Jimmy is referred to as "Little" because of his height. He stands 4'11" in stature. One of his biggest hits is titled, "I'm Little But I'm Loud.”
I've had many opportunities to visit with "Little" Jimmy Dickens. His talent as a performer is a bit overshadowed by his ability to communicate. You'll notice this quickly if you are fortunate enough to sit with him and hear some of his reflections on his life in the country music community. You would expect him to have a few interesting tales at his disposal after having spent over six decades in entertainment.
One of my favorite Dickens stories pertains to the late Hank Williams. As I mentioned, it was Hank who pinned the tag, "Tater" to Jimmy. Many regard Hank as being the greatest country singer of all time. He is also referred to by many as "the best country song writer, ever.” Several of his "country" compositions were destined to become huge hits in the "pop" field, including "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,” "Your Cheatin' Heart,” "Cold Cold Heart,” and many others. Hank was also a friend and fan of "Little" Jimmy Dickens. They appeared on many shows together.
While on tour in the early '50s, Hank informed Jimmy that he had written a song for him. "I was highly complimented when Hank gave me this big news," said Jimmy. "After all, he was regarded as th' best songwriter of them all. We were backstage when Hank pulled his guitar out of the case and began singing the song he'd written just for me. It was titled, 'Hey Good Lookin.' After listening to Hank sing the song, I informed him that it was one of the best country songs I'd ever heard, and that I was looking forward to recording it during my next record session, coming up in a few days."
Jimmy bolted with laughter before continuing with the story. "Well, I went into the Nashville recording studio about a week later, looking forward to recording 'Hey Good Lookin.' I was told I'd have to wait a few minutes because Hank Williams was recording his last song on his session time. I could hear Hank's familiar voice from the studio speakers. He was singing, 'Hey Good Lookin,' the same song I was about to record. I jumped into the studio and shouted, 'Hank! That's the song you said you wrote for me! I was about to record it!
"Hank looked at me and said, 'Hell, Tater, when you told me you thought it was a hit, I decided to record it myself! I'll write you another one someday."
I realize I have fallen short in describing my admiration for "Little" Jimmy Dickens. However, I could never find the appropriate words. There will never be a better showman, a better friend.
Here's to you, "Tater!”
Hear Bill Mack daily from 12:00 Noon until 4:00 p.m. (ET) on XM Satellite Radio. The program is replayed from 8:00 p.m. until Midnight (ET). Bill’s book, “Bill Mack’s Memories From The Trenches of Broadcasting” and recordings can be ordered via his website: www.billmackcountry.com.