Record Shopping With Jim Dickinson

By Holly George-Warren
Updated November 22, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Browsing through Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies in New York City with producer, pianist, songwriter, solo artist, and raconteur James Luther Dickinson is like taking a class in the cool arcana of rock & roll. His name may not ring a bell, but you’ve likely heard his work: as session keyboardist on albums by Dylan, Aretha, and the Stones, or as producer of cult classics like the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me and Big Star’s Third, as well as the 2000 debut by his sons Luther and Cody’s raucous blues combo the North Mississippi Allstars. Dickinson’s own first solo disc in 30 years, Free Beer Tomorrow, was released last month on Artemis and features him covering an eclectic batch of tunes by brilliant but unsung writers.

”I used to find myself in the cutouts at record stores,” says the 61-year-old with a laugh. ”I’ve seen Dixie Fried [his 1972 debut LP, just reissued on Sepia-Tone] for everything from $150 to 29 cents.” Making his way to the bins, under a poster of ’50s pinup girl Bettie Page, Dickinson exclaims, ”I could spend a week in this place! Old records make me sad, though. They remind me of my misspent youth.”

Filed under ”Southern Rock” in the vinyl section, a Butch Trucks album catches Dickinson’s eye: ”I produced his first record,” he says of the Allman Brothers drummer. He spots another disc: ”Here’s my boys! Black Oak Arkansas! They were originally a band called Know Body Else, and they were as good as Black Oak is bad.”

Dickinson grabs the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders’ Stations of the Cross. ”Johnny Thunders is a tie that weaves through my various ‘victims,”’ he says. In fact, the Replacements, one of Dickinson’s best-known victims, made a career of emulating Thunders’ onstage antics. Dickinson admits that he had to use a ”sneaky dude” MO to coax that same no-holds-barred attitude out of the band in the studio: ”That’s the way you produce records — no artist wants to give it up.”

On the prowl for ”something truly ob-scure,” Dickinson searches for a Moondog EP, the Righteous Brothers’ ”The White Cliffs of Dover,” and a release by songwriter John Hurley (”Son of a Preacher Man”). No dice. But we do find a Rhino anthology of Link Wray, who’s credited with inventing the power chord. ”This has ‘Rumble’ on it,” Dickinson notes. ”Now, that’s a man’s guitar.”

We don’t find much else Dickinson doesn’t already own, but that Bettie Page poster sure would look nice in his home studio. Sold, for $8.