Richard Nixon might have been President of the United States the last time that Little Jimmy Dickens appeared on the Billboard Country Singles Chart, but the veteran performer enjoyed a career that went far beyond chart statistics.
Dickens, who passed away tonight at the age of 94 due to cardiac arrest, came to prominence during the time of Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold, and became the last man standing from that era — continuing to entertain fans at the Grand Ole Opry less than two weeks ago. His passing is the final link to country’s golden past, though he made an impact on many of the format’s biggest stars with his kindness and welcoming attitude at the Opry.
Dickens was born December 19, 1920 in Bolt, W.Va. After high school, he attended West Virginia University. It was during that time that he began his performing career at WJLS in Beckley. Just like with many performers of the day, Dickens took his act on the road, winding up at Saginaw’s WKNX Radio, where he came to the attention of Roy Acuff. That exposure led to a meeting with Columbia’s Art Satherley and executives at the Opry. Dickens became a member of the WSM Radio show in August 1948, and signed with Columbia the next month.
The singer hit the charts with a vengeance in 1949, with four records in the top ten — “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait),” “Country Boy,” “My Heart’s Bouquet,” and “A-Sleeping At The Foot Of The Bed,” which peaked at No. 6 on the charts. Dickens became one of the format’s biggest stars in the early 1950s, thanks to continued success with singles such as “I’m Little But I’m Loud,” “Hillbilly Fever,” and “Out Behind The Barn.”
The singer never forgot the helping hand extended to him by Acuff and paid it forward by helping many other performers during his career. Perhaps the biggest example of this was his discovering Marty Robbins while on the road in Phoenix in the early 1950s. After the success of “Out Behind The Barn,” Dickens was absent from the charts for eight years, returning to the top ten in 1962 with the Mel Tillis-written “The Violet And The Rose.” He would remain a crowd favorite, thanks to his exposure on the Phillip Morris Country Music Show package.
In 1965, the singer recorded his biggest hit with “May The Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” which became his only No. 1 country hit. It also marked his lone appearance on the Hot 100, peaking at No.15. He would leave Columbia in 1968, signing with Decca. He never returned to the top 40 again, in spite of releasing some of his best work — such as the classic tear-jerker “Raggedy Ann.” His last chart appearance came in 1972 with “Try It, You’ll Like It,” which hit No. 61
In 1975, the singer rejoined the Opry, and achieved the pinnacle of his career in 1983 with his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame by Barbara Mandrell on the 17th Annual Country Music Association Awards. Dickens continued to tour through the years, but became known as one of the symbols of the Opry during his later years. He often introduced many newcomers to the stage, and also extended invitations to many to become members, such as the Oak Ridge Boys and Trace Adkins.
Many of the younger performers also reached out to Dickens, with Vince Gill including him in several of his videos in the 1990s, and Brad Paisley inviting him to appear on several of his albums as part of the “Kung Pao Buckaroos” with Bill Anderson and George Jones. The bond with Paisley also extended to the CMA Awards as well, with Dickens making several appearances on the show over the years while Paisley and Carrie Underwood served as co-hosts.
Dickens turned 94 on Dec. 19, and made his final appearance on the Opry stage the next night. He was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Day. In announcing his passing before the start of the Friday Night Opry, an emotional General Manager Pete Fisher stated “The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens. He loved the audience and his Opry family, and all of us loved him back.”
He is survived by a wife, Mona, and two daughters, Pamela and Lisa. Funeral arrangements are pending.