Although he stood less than 5 feet tall, country music lost a giant when longtime Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens died Friday (Jan. 2) at a Nashville-area hospital at age 94. A master showman and a fan favorite at the Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame member made his final Opry appearance on Dec. 20.
A diminutive bundle of energy in his 1950s and 1960s heyday, Dickens wowed country fans with a pleasing mix of his tiny size and an incongruous gum-popping swagger. Also known for his self-deprecating humor, he often called himself “Willie Nelson after taxes” and pretended to have overheard a fan describe him as “Mighty Mouse in pajamas.”
His best records featured a hot group of talented pickers in and around his Country Boys band, such as Jabbo Arrington, Thumbs Carlille, Spider Wilson, Howard Rhoton, Walter Haynes, Buddy Harman and Buddy Emmons. Famous for classic comedy novelties like “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed” and “Out Behind the Barn,” Dickens sang with incomparable heart such love ballads as “We Could,” “I’m Making Love to a Stranger,” “Another Bridge to Burn” and “Life Turned Her That Way.”
Born James Cecil Dickens on Dec. 19, 1920, in the small community of Bolt, West Virginia, he was the oldest of 13 children, and within his extended family was a good share of music-loving and music-making coalminers. On radio, he heard a more professional brand of music. By his teen years, Dickens was playing guitar and singing.
He first got paid to sing at WJLS in Beckley, West Virginia, in 1938, two years before his high school graduation. In the company there of such future country legends as the Bailes Brothers and Molly O’Day, Dickens moved on to Fairmont, West Virginia, and worked with yet another great, T. Texas Tyler. After high school graduation, he followed Tyler to Indianapolis, where the former “Jimmie the Kid” was first called “Little Jimmy Dickens.” In 1945, Dickens took solo work at WLW in Cincinnati, where a last growth spurt at age 24 brought him to his final height of 4 feet 11 inches.
Following a year’s stint in Cincinnati, Dickens headed to Topeka, Kansas, and continued working as a single performer. In 1947, his next stop was Saginaw, Michigan, where he put his first band together. Former Grand Ole Opry network radio host Roy Acuff came through Saginaw on tour and was so impressed with Dickens’ talent and showmanship that he offered to help him find work on Nashville’s WSM and the Opry, a move Dickens made in 1948 (actually living with Acuff during and after the music veteran’s unsuccessful gubernatorial race that year).
In August 1948, Dickens became an Opry member following work on WSM and several Opry guest appearances, and his first recordings were for Acuff’s label, Columbia, in January 1949. That year, he scored two career-building hits, “Take an Old Cold ’Tater (and Wait)” and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Country Boy,” the former supplying his own nickname of “Tater” (given him by Hank Williams) and the latter naming his new band, the Country Boys, which he formed that summer.
Soon Dickens was one of the Opry’s most beloved and entertaining acts and one of the field’s busiest road warriors, for years racking up tours of some 200-plus days out and more than 200,000 miles. Even without a lot of charted hits in the years just ahead, his showmanship was the envy of bigger hit-makers, and his band’s musicianship became the goal or target for many aspiring rural musicians. Dickens was one of the first stars whose band released instrumentals in their own right, such as “Buddy’s Boogie,” “Red Wing,” Raisin’ the Dickens” and “Country Boy Bounce,” released on Columbia singles or LPs in the mid-1950s.
Such talented pickers as Emmons, Wilson and Rhoton helped take Dickens’ career through the coming of rock ‘n’ roll at about that time. Some hillbilly artists were hit hard by the change, but Dickens stayed right on course, having already “rocked” many of his novelties (such as “Blackeyed Joe’s” and “Salty Boogie”). Dickens left the Opry in 1957 for a lucrative year and a half with the Philip Morris Country Music Show in the cast with Carl Smith, Goldie Hill, Red Sovine and rocker Ronnie Self. Jim Denny, organizer of that tour and the Opry’s former manager, also ran Cedarwood Music, and from that company came many of Dickens’ recorded songs in these and later years.
The 1960s actually brought Dickens a good deal more chart action (nine charted hits, as opposed to only three in the 1950s), including his biggest hit — the 1965 novelty classic “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” — which reached No. 1 on the country chart and No. 15 on the pop chart. Trivia buffs might know that in the spring of 1964, Dickens became the first country artist to make a round-the-world tour when a three-month junket took him to military outposts from Hawaii eastward through Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Montreal, Minnesota and then home.
In 1967, Dickens switched to Decca Records, then to United Artists in 1971. Rejoining the Opry in 1975, the popular entertainer eventually became something of an elder statesman and onstage spokesman for the show, welcoming new young headline acts into the regular cast. Little Jimmy Dickens was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983.
Dickens underwent brain surgery in 2009 after being diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, a clot created when blood vessels tear and blood accumulates in the space between the brain and its protective covering within the skull. He underwent radiation treatment in 2013 for a pre-cancerous condition on his vocal cords.
Dickens’ first marriage to Connie Chapman ended in divorce in 1955. Later that year, he married Ernestine Jones, and they adopted a daughter, Pamela Jean, in 1956. Ernestine Dickens perished in a Texas auto accident on Jan. 1, 1968. On Dec. 24, 1971, Dickens married Mona Evans, who survives her husband.