Jim Dickinson Loves Rock and Roll
What was a typical day or week like back then?
[laughter] None of them were typical! Once I went to work for Atlantic, it was. In Miami, we made 14 albums in six months and I went completely crazy at that point. And that was like an assembly line. It was also like a master’s degree, you know: open the bun, insert the artist; one a week kind of deal. But for my experience with the Rolling Stones, that’s where I would have left it. That kind of Nashville/Detroit assembly line, Stax records process. But watching the Stones for three days, it just dawned on me: somebody is right and somebody is wrong here and I’m kinda thinking I’m the one that’s wrong. So that’s when I started going for the spontaneity. They literally took the first cut they got through without making a major mistake. And nobody ever said the words, “should we do that again, can we do it better?” Those words weren’t spoken. I was coming from the assembly line school where you play it over and over till you got it right which is clearly not what they do. It’s what for what I learned from them I wouldn’t have known what do to with Alex Chilton [Big Star] or certainly not The Replacements. Because it is… boredom from a road player… from anybody but a studio pro, after about the third pass you start to hear the boredom. And nobody wants to listen to that. And the musician can’t help it. It just comes on your unless you teach yourself otherwise. And especially working with groups, that’s the big secret—catching it before it gets boring.
Touching a bit more on your Stones’ experience. You’re a pretty even keeled guy, no matter who you’re dealing with, seemingly always cool and collected. But, at this time—1969—you’re 28-years old and you’re recording for the Sticky Fingers album, playing keys on “Wild Horses” and you tell Mick Jagger to keep the little hook of “just around midnight” in “Brown Sugar.” Was this a big deal for you or were you typically low key about the whole affair?
Well, yeah [I knew it was big deal]. People do ask me, “what do you feel like when you sit down and play with The Rolling Stones?” That part of it seemed very natural. It was like playing with my band from high school. They could barely play; it wasn’t intimidating musically at all. I fit right in because I’m a very limited musician. What I do is very simple. And by the time I had to actually sit down and play, I had been hanging with them for a couple of days so it wasn’t like prove yourself though there was a moment I’ll tell you about.
The way they did the sessions is Jagger would stay on the floor with a handheld microphone and sing the songs until the band learned it, right? Then he’d go in the control room with Jimmy Johnson the engineer and get the sounds together and then he’d come back out and go into the vocal booth and they’d cut. I’d watched them do that on “You Got To Move” and “Brown Sugar” and now we’re in the middle of “Wild Horses.” And I’m out there plinking away, my little pitiful Floyd Kramer licks, we’re running the song down and Jagger is in the control room and he hits the talk back button and I hear the words I’ve been dreading for 45-minutes. He says, [donning a British accent], “Hey Keith, what do you think about the piano?” And Keith says, god bless his soul, he says, “It’s the only thing I like.” At that point I figured I was safe. After I recorded with The Stones, it wasn’t that I felt like I could do anything like Superman or something, but I felt like, “I just recorded with The Rolling Stones, anything can happen.” Who’s gonna come next? And it’s been like that. Certainly Dylan was a huge ambition for me but even that, you just sit down and do what you do. [Dickinson played on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind]. I’ve been lucky enough to make it work.
It’s my understanding that you took Jimmy Page to Sun Studios to meet Sam Phillips for the first time.
No, no. no. Boy you do know a lot. I think he thinks he was at Sun Studios. But we took him to Arden. Me, Terry Manning and Don Nicks. We went up to Kentucky to see a Dick Clark package show. Scary Louis and The Playboys were playing on the show and Nicks knew all of them and I’d met [Jim] Keltner and we were just going up there to hang and bang. Terry Manning, who at that point was a member of the group called The Goat Dancers who I was a producing, kind of an early psychedelic freak out group, was fascinated by Page. We went up there to see The Yardbirds but it was the night after [Jeff] Beck had broken his guitar onstage in Atlanta and walked off. So we literally saw them play as a trio for the first time. And they had a day off and Page wanted to come to Memphis. So he rode back in our station wagon, we brought him back to Memphis and we took him to Arden. I honestly think, at that point, that he thought he was at Sun Studios.
So did he get to meet Sam?
No, not until they… well, Page wasn’t with them with they recorded “I’m a Man.” That’s what they did with Sam which I guess was… maybe a year later. Maybe not quite that long. By that time, I was working for Chips Moman at American. And Chips was going to cut the session, they were coming through town on some kind of tour. Reggie Young, they all knew Reggie Young, and he had set it up for them to come to the studio and record. And American, at that point, was really primitive; mono, old Ampex mixers really, really haywire. It just wasn’t working and Chips was furious, man. So we called over to Sam Phillips studio and Chips was hoping Sam wouldn’t be there and that he could just get in and record. But Sam was there and about three days drunk and just took over. And the proceedings began to commence as they say. But I know Page wasn’t with them. I don’t know that Page ever met Sam.
I was reading a recent interview where you were ripping apart the Rolling Stones current keyboard player.
I’m sorry I did that. [laugh]
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