I think it is no secret to any fan of the Opry that on Monday December 19, Jimmy Dickens will be celebrating his 91st birthday. He has been called the Opry's greatest treasure and the fact that he is still at the Opry almost every weekend is amazing. So far in 2011, he has made 140 Opry appearances, more than any other member. And I would say that considering some of the health issues Jimmy has had in recent years, 2011 has been pretty good to him. He looks much better than he has in the past year or so and his voice has been holding up pretty well.
I thought what I would do is to reprint the biography of Jimmy that appeared in the Grand Ole Opry book that was published in 1952. He had been a member of the Opry for 4 years at that point of his career, making him one of the Opry's younger members. Here is what they wrote:
"Little Jimmy Dickens is definitely the smallest star on the Grand Ole Opry, and he probably has the loudest voice of any man his size in the entertainment field. He is only four feet and eleven inches tall, but every inch of him helps to make up a dynamo of energy and a captivating personality.
Jimmy was born in Raleigh County, West Virginia, near Bolt, and was brought up on a farm. When he was seventeen years old, he entered radio in Beckley, West Virginia where his big voice and friendly smile made him a local success. From there he went to stations in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jimmy joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1948, and within a short time he had become a nationwide favorite for his performances both on the air and in personal appearances. The songs that Jimmy sings most are those reminiscent of rural customs and the country way of life, some serious, some humorous. Best example of this is the song that first made him famous: 'Old Cold Tater.' It harks back to childhood days when he had to wait to eat at the second table on Sunday when the preacher came for dinner at his house, and his mother said: 'Jim, take a tater and wait.' Similar songs that he has made famous and recorded for Columbia are 'Sleepin' At The Foot Of The Bed,' 'The Galvanized Washing Tub' (a familiar bathing vessel), 'Get Them Cold Feet Over On The Other Side', etc. Others of a slightly different nature but equally successful are 'Bessie The Heifer', 'I'm Little But I'm Loud', and 'It May Be Silly, But Ain't It Fun.' Like all other folk artists he also sings religious songs. One of his latest is 'They Locked God Outside The Iron Curtain.'
During his performances, Jimmy is a diminutive cowboy. He wears a smaller version of the traditional Western carb, usually two-toned. He wears cowboy boots, and his favorite pair have sterling silver toes. As his loud voice goes into action, he pats his foot vigorously, jumps and bounces in time with the music. He never loses his infectious smile, and his eyes twinkle with good humor. Between his turns at the microphone, he is usually engaged in some spontaneous comic routine with other members of the cast. Jimmy is married, but he has no children. He and his wife live in a modest home in Nashville's suburbs. He keeps a horse and is found of riding and hunting."
As the article in the Grand Ole Opry stated, Jimmy first joined the Opry in 1948. Here is what Jimmy said about him joining the Opry:
"I was working in Saginaw, Michigan, on a small station there with a five-piece band and Mr. Acuff came to our city. I had, made his acquaintance before that in Cincinnati in 1945. And then in 1948, why, he asked me if I would come down to the Grand Ole Opry, and at that particular time Red Foley had the network show for the Prince Albert people on NBC. I came as a guest. I had ten years of radio experience doing shows across the country and I thought I was ready for that-you know, I was over the stage fright and all that. But when I walked on that stage of the Ryman I've never been no more scared and shook up in all my life. My knees were knockin' and I couldn't understand it, because I thought I was ready for that, but I wasn't. But I did very well, luckily, I mean as far as response was concerned, and then a month later they asked me to come down again, and when I came that time Mr. Acuff asked me if I would be interested in staying."
It's interesting to note that when Little Jimmy Dickens first came to the Grand Ole Opry, he had no background at all as a recording artist. But being on the Opry brought him to the attention of Columbia Records, and his first release, 'Take a Cold Tater and Wait' was a smash hit.
In 1957, after 9 years as an Opry member, Jimmy left. He had accepted an offer to head up a major road show for the Philip Morris tobacco company. But at that time, the Opry's sponsorship by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company prohibited any Grand Ole Opry member from traveling with a tour sponsored by a competitor. So, Jimmy left Nashville and the Opry. He would say that there were no hard feelings, but some didn't believe that. On February 8, 1975, after being gone for 18 years, Jimmy would rejoin the Opry.
I know that Jimmy is known for his humor and his comedy songs. Early in his Opry career, he would often do humor with June Carter. And his comedy songs are classic. But in my opinion, Jimmy was one of the finest ballad singers in the history of country music. Even though his voice is not what it once was, I still enjoy the fact that Jimmy closes out almost every one of his Opry segments with one of his ballads.
So, a very Happy Birthday to a Hall of Famer and a great Grand Ole Opry member, Jimmy Dickens. May this next year bring good health, good humor and the wish that he will continue to entertain us from the Opry stage each and every week.