Cemetery in Nashville. Mixing comedy and an underrated ability as a balladeer, Dickens was famous for his humorous novelty songs, his small size, 4’11” (150 cm), and his rhinestone-studded outfits (which he is given credit for introducing into country music live performances). He started as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1948 and became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983. Before his death he was the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry.
The son of a coalminer, Dickens was the youngest of 13 children, and began his musical career at age 17 playing guitar and singing on local radio with Johnny Bailes And His Happy Valley Boys as “The Singing Midget” and “Jimmy the Kid”. By the late 1930s while he was a student at the West Virginia University, he began performing on WJLS radio station in Beckley, West. 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.” He then worked with T. Texas Tyler but struck out on his own when Tyler joined the service. Dickens married Connie Chapman in 1944.
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”. Hank Williams heard “Take an Old Cold ‘Tater (and Wait)” and began referring to Mr. Dickens as “Tater,” a nickname that stuck throughout his life. Mr. Dickens wore the moniker proudly, and he often talked about witnessing Williams’ electrifying “Opry” debut. Later, telling Jimmy he needed a hit, Williams penned “Hey Good Lookin'” in only 20 minutes while on a plane with Dickens, Minnie Pearl, and Pearl’s husband Henry Cannon. A week later Williams cut the song himself, jokingly telling Dickens, “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. His marriage ended in divorce in 1955, and later that year, he married Ernestine Jones. 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”. In 1964, he 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 #1 on the country chart and #15 on the pop chart. In 1968, his wife Ernestine died in an automobile accident while traveling in Texas.
In the late 1960s, Dickens left Columbia for Decca Records before moving again to United Artists in 1971. That same year, he married his third 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 were collectively referred to as the Kung-Pao Buckaroos.
“Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m thought of as someone who’s contributed to this industry,” Dickens said in a 1995 interview. “It’s hard for me to explain how I feel about it. Because country music is my life. I’ve lived it.”
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,” playing on his resemblance to Nelson in his later years and his own short stature. At the 2011 CMA Awards, Jimmy was dressed up as Justin Bieber, and made fun of Bieber’s then-current paternity scandal.