"I'm sure everybody thinks I'm sitting down now," piped Little Jimmy Dickens, who gingerly made his way to the front of a crowded Rippy's Bar and Grill on Nashville's Lower Broadway on Wednesday evening (Jan 19). "But I'm standing up," he said, sending roaring laughter through the hundreds of guests who had convened for his 90th birthday party.
Visible by only the tip of his white cowboy hat, the 4-foot-11-inch Country Music Hall of Famer was encircled by well-wishers eager to congratulate him on his remarkable nine decades. Balloons, video screens, large black-and-white photos and "Happy Birthday" banners decorated the three-room area as guests shared stories and memories while snacking on guitar-shaped cupcakes. The invitation-only event included fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson, fellow Grand Ole Opry members John Conlee, Jeanne Pruett and Riders in the Sky and industry friends such as Jessi Colter, Bryan White, Danielle Peck, Buddy Cannon and many others.
A few brief presentations began the celebration to honor the man known for his small stature and witty sense of humor. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean praised Dickens with kind words and admiration. Nancy cartoonist Guy Gilchrist bestowed the birthday boy with an original copy of an upcoming comic strip titled, "The Biggest Man in Town."
Later, a large (and seemingly heavy) guitar-shaped cake was delivered to the smiling star who enlisted a few friends to help him properly support the dessert.
"I was anticipating having a few of my friends [here]," he later told CMT.com during the celebration. "But I didn't know I had this many. It's really, really heartwarming to know we have this many people here and all these people I have met at one time or another, and that's so nice to have them here."
Crediting his longevity to telling the truth, he explained, "I've been honest with people and put myself on the level of the fans. And that's about the only reason I know of that's let me have the success that I have."
Throughout the evening, several of his friends shared personal memories of their friendship with the man who has graced the Grand Ole Opry stage for more than 60 years.
Renowned singer-songwriter Bill Anderson recalled being only 15 years old when he met Dickens for the first time at a concert in Atlanta. The two went on to become fast friends and tourmates who pounded the pavement together across the U.S. and Canada. During that time, Anderson said he truly got to know the man behind the rhinestone suit.
"When you're out on a tour like that with somebody for a long time, you get to know them pretty well," Anderson said. "Not just as an entertainer, but as a person. And Little Jimmy Dickens is not only one of the best entertainers that ever came down the pike, but he's one of the finest human beings that I've ever known. He's been extremely kind to me, and I love him."
Producer-songwriter Buddy Cannon first met Dickens when he moved to Nashville to work as a bass player for Opry member Bob Luman. Cannon fondly recalled Dickens' playful demeanor and the many nights they shared the Opry stage together with Tex Ritter in the early '70s.
As Cannon reminisced about one night in particular, he grinned as he told of the time he and Luman were preparing to take the stage following Dickens' performance of the an emotional song, "(You've Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann."
"When he came off," Cannon recounted, "he had tears in his eyes and had that little doll in his hand. He walked by Bob and he leaned over and said, 'It's hard to follow a midget and a doll.'"
Cannon added, "Back then, I didn't get to know him really well, but he and Tex Ritter had a lot of personal running jokes between them. It was always fun to hang out and watch those two guys pick at each other."
Patsy Cline's husband Charlie Dick said one of his fondest memories with Dickens was years ago sitting at a bar in San Francisco, reminiscing about old times.
"Hell, that was 50 years ago!" he laughed. "He's just a great guy. He walks by and acts like he doesn't know you, but he'll come back and put his arm around you and love you. He's just like a brother."