Dickens, who was born in the Raleigh County community of Bolt, West Virginia, stood only 4’11’ tall, but cast a shadow over the country music scene that stretched around the world.
Famous for his humorous novelty songs, and his rhinestone-studded outfits, Dickens began musical career in the late 1930s, performing on WJLS radio station in Beckley, West Virginia, while attending West Virginia University. He soon quit school to pursue a full-time music career, and traveled the country performing on various local radio stations under the name “Jimmy the Kid.”
In 1948, Dickens was heard performing on WKNX, a radio station in Saginaw, Michigan, by Roy Acuff, who introduced him to Art Satherly at Columbia Records and officials from the Grand Ole Opry. Dickens signed with Columbia in September and joined the Opry in August. Around this time he began using the nickname, Little Jimmy Dickens, inspired by his short stature.
Dickens recorded many novelty songs for Columbia, including “Country Boy,” “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” and “I’m Little But I’m Loud.” His song “Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait)” inspired Hank Williams to nickname him “Tater.” Later, telling Jimmy he needed a hit, Williams penned “Hey Good Lookin'” specifically for Dickens in only 20 minutes while on a Grand Ole Opry tour bus. A week later, Williams cut the song himself, jokingly telling him, “That song’s too good for you!”
In 1950, Dickens formed the Country Boys with musicians Jabbo Arrington, Grady Martin, Bob Moore and Thumbs Carllile. It was during this time that he discovered future Country Music Hall of Famer Marty Robbins at a Phoenix, Arizona television station while on tour with the Grand Ole Opry road show. In 1957, Dickens left the Grand Ole Opry to tour with the Philip Morris Country Music Show.
In 1962, Dickens scored his first top-10 country hit since 1954 with “The Violet and the Rose.”
A decade later, Dickens became the first country artist to circle the globe while on tour, and also made numerous TV appearances, including on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1965, he released his biggest hit, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” reaching No. 1 on the country chart and No. 15 on the pop chart.
In the late 1960s, Dickens married his wife, Mona and in 1975 he returned to the Grand Ole Opry. In 1983. Dickens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dickens joined producers Randall Franks and Alan Autry for the In the Heat of the Night cast CD “Christmas Time’s A Comin’”, performing “Jingle Bells” with the cast (the CD was released on Sonlite and MGM/UA and was one of the most popular Christmas releases of 1991 and 1992 with Southern retailers).
Toward the end of his life, Dickens made appearances in a number of music videos by fellow country musician and West Virginia native Brad Paisley. He was also featured on several of Paisley’s albums in bonus comedy tracks, along with other Opry mainstays such as George Jones and Bill Anderson. They are collectively referred to as the Kung-Pao Buckaroos.
With the death of Hank Locklin in March 2009, Dickens became the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 90. He made regular appearances as a host at the Opry, often with the self-deprecating joke that he is also known as “Willie Nelson after taxes.” At the 2011 CMA Awards, Jimmy was dressed up as Justin Bieber, and made fun of Bieber’s then-current paternity scandal.
Dickens was hospitalized after a stroke on December 25, 2014. He died of cardiac arrest on January 2, 2015, at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife, Mona Dickens and two daughters, Pamela Detert and Lisa King.
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