DICKEY LEE'S talents are widespread and stretching over more years in the music business than one might imagine, having kicked off in Memphis in the glorious days of Sun Records. ALAN CACKETT tells the story …
The Memphis Pop & Rock Idol Who Found Lasting Country Success
Dickey Lee, like so many country singers and musicians, came to Nashville after a career in pop and rock’n’roll music. He travelled a similar road as Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ed Bruce, beginning his recording career almost 25 years ago at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis. He was only 16 years old when made his first record, Good Lovin’, on August 10, 1957; he was madly keen on a career in music, and nothing was going to deter him.
Born on September 21, 1941 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dickey Lipscombe grew up in country music. His big idol of the early 1950s was Webb Pierce, but it wasn’t hip for a teenager to say he liked ‘hillbilly music.’ In high school he formed a group, which started playing country music, but as rock’n’roll was all the rage, the group played the ‘new’ music to meet the demands of its audience. They won a local talent contest, and during summer vacation auditioned for a radio show in Santa Barbara, California, and got a 15-minute daily spot. This didn’t last too long, though, because Dickey and the other members of the group had to consider their education.
They returned to Memphis and worked around local clubs and built up a healthy following. It was at this time that Dickey first met Allen Reynolds, a fellow high school student who played bass fiddle. Reynolds was very much into vocal harmonies, and he was instrumental in assembling a background vocal group, the Collegiates, for Dickey. With this vocal/instrumental set-up, they auditioned for Jack Clement at Sun Records. Clement was not really into what the boys were doing (it wasn’t exactly the rockabilly sound that Sun was noted for), but decided to give Dickey Lee and the Collegiates just one record.
The A-side of the record, Good Lovin’, had a definite Presley sound, being very similar to Too Much, while the B-side, Memories Never Grow Old, written by Dickey and two members of the band, was a softer teen ballad. The record was a local Memphis hit, so Jack had no option but to get the youngsters back into the studio. The second session produced Dreamy Nights, a mid-tempo pop tune with some good background vocal sounds, and Fool, Fool, Fool, a song co-written by Dickey and Allen Reynolds.
Dickey and the band were flushed with their instant success, though of course it was only on a local basis, and thought they knew the music business inside out. Jack Clement wasn’t a man who liked to be told what to do, and got a little tired of the college band, and tried to keep out of their way. He did use them on other sessions by singers like Ed Bruce and Charlie Rich, and there’s little doubt that Dickey Lee and Allen Reynolds gained invaluable experience during the brief period with Sun Records.
One of Dickey's loves after music was boxing. He became welter-weight champion in Memphis and attended Memphis State University, partly on a boxing scholarship, and also studied commercial art. But it was music that finally won-out, and throughout his career two people have always seemed to be involved in his music—Jack Clement and Allen Reynolds.
In 1959 Clement left Memphis and moved to Nashville, and after working for a while under Chet Atkins at RCA Records, opened his own studio and publishing concerns in Nashville and Beaumont. Dickey and Allen moved to Texas to manage the latter. Allen had recently completed a stint in the Air Force, and was keen to get back into music. He had written some songs and was ready to go to work with Dickey in the studio. Clement had also been busy, and came up with a song, Patches, that he felt was ideal for Dickey.
He had found the song amongst a lot of demos in Chet Atkins office. Thought the song had been written three or four years earlier, Clement was convinced that it was hit material. The three of them got to work in the Beaumont studio and came up with a finished record. Clement persuaded Mercury to release the record on their subsidiary Smash, and that was just what Patches became. What a lot of people failed to notice was that the record had a country fiddle in the background. In the autumn of 1962 it entered the American top 100 and climbed up to number six, leading to Dickey becoming a teenage idol.
This led to the usual round of one-night stands, appearances on the Dick Clark TV Show, American Bandstand, and various local TV and radio shows all over America. Dickey was also heavily involved in songwriting, and it was at this time that he wrote She Thinks I Still Care, a country classic; the type of song spoken of as being ‘in the tradition.’ It became a number one country hit for George Jones in 1962, who was also based in Beaumont, and since then there have been well in excess of 100 versions of this song.
Dickey enjoyed further pop successes on Smash with I Saw Linda Yesterday and Don’t Want To Think About Paula before Jack Clement teamed up with Bill Hall in late 1964 to form TCF Hall Records, a totally independent record and publishing organisation that not only handled Dickey Lee, but was also involved in the early development of Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, Nashville’s most successful country songwriting team.
At this time, Dickey and Allen moved back to Memphis. Dickey went to work for the Sounds Of Memphis Recordings Studios, while Allen combined his musical activities with another job, branch manager of the First National Bank Of Memphis. Deeply involved in writing and producing (with Reynolds), Dickey was, in the terminology of those days, ‘a pop star,’ as well as an important asset to the Sounds of Memphis recording team. Once TCF-Hall Records was set up, Clement invited Dickey to record for the fledgling company. His first release for the new label, Laurie (Strange Things Happen), was a pop hit in the summer of 1965 and also marked Dickey’s first recording stint in Nashville. Recorded at Foster Sound Studio, the record was jointly produced by Hall and Clement with the arrangements handled by Ray Stevens. This was followed by The Girl From Peyton Place, another pop hit, and the album DICKEY LEE SINGS LAURIE.
It was a good, mid-1960s pop album, with songs mainly built around the theme of the fairer sex. Dickey projected a kind of universal innocence, mingled with pure teenage knowingness, and songs of soft charm like Smokey Robinson’s My Girl, Foster and Rice’s Annie, and the self-penned Julie Never Meant A Thing suited him perfectly. But there were a few heavier numbers like Roy Orbison’s Oh Pretty Woman and Chuck Berry’s Nadine, which were unsuitable for Dickey. His voice was just too light and soft for those sort of driving songs.
More singles like I Go Lonely and The Day The Sawmill Closed followed, but further hits eluded him. Eventually TCF-Hall closed, and Dickey moved to Atco Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic. His first single, the self-penned Red, Green, Yellow and Blue, almost made the top hundred in 1967, and that was followed by Hang Ups, a Barry Mann song. Allen Reynolds was still involved with Dickey, co-writing songs and handling the production. During this period they achieved notable success as the producers, managers and writers for The Vogues, a pop group that enjoyed a string of American pop hits with songs like Five O’clock World, Turn Around Look At Me and Magic Town.
At this time Jack Clement was once again becoming involved in the Nashville scene. He had been instrumental in getting Charley Pride on RCA Records, and was producing Tompall & The Glaser Brothers. In late 1969 he urged Dickey and Allen to move to Nashville, convinced that it was to become the centre of the American music business. The three of them formed The Rivertown Music Group, which was a self-contained unit, comprising publishing, producing and management.
The next 18 months for Dickey and Allen were spent getting totally involved in the Nashville scene. They wrote, they produced and they sang. Although it didn't take much effort to perfect their skills, they worked very hard indeed. Dickey was signed to RCA, and though his first release, Charlie (My Whole World), a song co-written with Paul Craft, failed to make the charts, his next release, The Mahogany Pulpit, marked Dickey's debut on the country charts in the summer of 1971.
It was not a giant hit, but was a good story-song that suited Dickey’s folksy delivery. The next single, Special, a Jerry Foster-Bill Rice song, surprisingly missed the charts, yet it was one of Dickey’s best ever recordings. That was followed by Never Ending Song Of Love, which bounded into the top ten and led to the release of Dickey’s first ‘country’ album, carrying the same title. It was a good collection that was characterised by the production techniques of Allen Reynolds that we have become familiar with in recent years through the recordings of Crystal Gayle and Don Williams.
Dickey and Allen had come up with fine songs, highlighted by On The Southbound and There’s Nobody Home To Go Home To, though my favourite song on the album is Dolly Parton’s My Blue Tears. A simple little piece that Dickey adapted well to suit his own style. Surprisingly Dickey’s follow-up to Never Ending Song Of Love, the bouncy and infectious I Saw My Lady, didn’t fare as well as expected, only reaching mid-twenties. That was followed by a fine up-dating of Ashes Of Love, an old Johnnie & Jack hit of the early 1950s. With country fiddles to the fore, Dickey showed that he had a natural feel for country music. The album of the same title took Dickey closer to the roots of country music. With an ambitious version of Waiting For A Train, including some falsetto yodelling, one of the best renditions of Catfish John and a sensitive version of his classic She Thinks I Still Care, which again featured country fiddles and steel guitar.
Dickey’s next half-dozen singles all failed to make the top twenty, though he was putting out some really good songs. Baby, Bye Bye, a Don Williams song with a straight country sound, enhanced by Buddy Spicher’s fiddle and Lloyd Green’s steel guitar, Danny Flowers’ Crying Over You and Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds’ Put Me Down Softly. RCA were not too worried by the lack of top ten hits, and quickly released a third album, BABY, BYE BYE. On this set the singer paid tribute to his idol, Webb Pierce, with two songs, Tupelo County Jail and That Heart Belongs To Me. He also turned in an excellent version of Shel Silverstein’s On Susan’s Floor.
Dickey decided it was time to put together a road band, and he hired Rick and Eric Simpson, two brothers who were steeped in country and gospel music, and at times he had Danny Flowers and Bob McDill working with him on road shows. Allen Reynolds was becoming involved with Jack Clement’s; new project. JMI Records, which was to set Don Williams on the road to stardom and elevate Reynolds to the position of most respected and in-demand producer in Nashville. But he was still very involved in the Dickey Lee career, and Dickey’s fourth RCA album, CRYING OVER YOU, showed that the JMI influence was beginning to make its presence felt.
The musicians on the album included Bob McDill, Charles Cochran, Bobby Wood, Joe Allen, Danny Flowers, Lloyd Green and Buddy Spicher, the nucleus of musicians that were to be used during the next eight years on recordings by both Don Williams and Crystal Gayle. The overall production was very similar to Don Williams’ first two or three albums, and included songs written by McDill, Reynolds, Danny Flowers, and of course Dickey Lee. The cover photographs were taken by John Donegan of JMI-Motion Pictures Division, and it seemed that once Dickey’s contract with RCA ran out, he would be set to sign with JMI Records.
Though it was the strongest album that Dickey had so far recorded, only the title song was released on single, and in the autumn of 1973, Sparklin’ Brown Eyes, a track from his second album, was put out as a single. Though it only reached the half-way mark on the country charts, it became the title song of Dickey’s fifth RCA album. This was released at the time Dickey’s contract was coming up for renewal, and included another old recording, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, from his BABY, BYE, BYE album. A fine version of Paul Craft’s Rosa Marie, Joe Allen’s Ghost Story and the sensitive You Make It Look So Easy, went against the lack of success that Dickey seemed to be enjoying. It was an excellent album, Dickey having mixed the selections well, choosing both the new and the old, and adding the distinctive Dickey Lee touch to each.
Dickey was all set to sign with JMI when things started to go wrong with Jack Clement’s dream. JMI Records folded, and Allen Reynolds moved out as Dickey’s co-producer, and in came Roy Dea. Dickey re-signed with RCA, and though the first two singles of the new partnership, I Use The Soap and Give Me One Good Reason, both failed to give Dickey the big hit single he needed, The Busiest Memory In Town, from the pen of Geoff Morgan, a relative newcomer to Nashville, put Dickey back into the top twenty for the first time in two years. The next single, Rocky, a song written by Jay Stevens, gave Dickey his first, and so far only, number one country hit. It was a sad song with a touching narration, and it was just the boost that the singer needed. It led to an album carrying the same title, which was slightly heavier in sound than Dickey’s previous sets. Included was The Door’s Always Open, a song co-written with Bob McDill and recorded since by Waylon Jennings and Dave & Sugar.
Dickey’s next single, Angels, Roses And Rain, was a sensitive father-child ballad that climbed into the top ten. This was followed by Sterling Whipple’s Makin’ Love Don’t Always Make Love Grow, which only reached the mid-thirties. It was in a similar vein to Rocky and should have fared better. Dickey was back on target with 9,999,999 Tears, a song written some ten years earlier by Razzy Bailey. It climbed into the top five, and out came another album, ANGELS, ROSES AND RAIN, which was to be his last for RCA. With the success of 9,999,999 Tears on the pop charts, this album certainly seems to have been directed to a wider audience, though one cannot deny the country feel given to the Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen A Face, and Dickey’s own I’ll Be Leaving Alone, a song that was set to become a number one hit for Charley Pride.
Though that was to be the last album for RCA, Dickey did make the top twenty with songs like If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody (a pop hit for Freddie and the Dreamers in the mid-1960s), Virginia, How Far Will You Go and Peanut Butter, another song from Razzy Bailey. His last single for RCA was with It’s Not Easy, a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song that made the lower reaches of the country charts at the end of 1978.
The following year Dickey signed with Mercury Records and simultaneously released an album, simple titled DICKEY, and a single, I’m Just A Hearache Away, which peaked at the same position on the charts as his final RCA single. The album marked the return of Allen Reynolds as co-producer, though some tracks were co-produced with Jerry Kennedy and Jim Vieneau. Dickey provided a couple of self-written songs, both crafted with a care for interesting structure, there were some oldies, like Gene Pitney’s It Hurts To Be In Love and Paul Craft’s Midnight Flyer, plus some excellent new songs. The repertoire was carefully tailored to the format and provided a pleasant setting for Dickey’s vocalising.
More singles like He’s An Old Rock’n’Roller, Don’t Look Back and Workin’ My Way To Your Heart led to a second album, DICKEY LEE AGAIN, in the summer of 1980. Once again the singer utilised a trio of producers, this time it was Buzz Cason, Garth Fundis and Roy Dea. The results was another entertaining album, highlighted by the opening song, Lost In Love, a big pop hit for the Australian group Air Supply, and a country hit for Dickey in the autumn of 1980. Once again it was Bob McDill, Wayland Holyfield and Lee himself who came up with most of the songs, but this time the album was rounded off with Buzz Cason’s Emmylou, Steve Gibb’s beautiful Love Will Find A Way and Layng Martine Jr’s Workin’ My Way To Your Heart, which was another successful single.
Bob McDill came up with Dickey’s next single Honky Tonk Hearts, so far his most successful single since signing with Mercury. McDill also wrote Everybody Loves A Winner, the title song for Dickey’s latest album. The song has a laid-back feel, effectively delivered in Dickey’s easy-going vocals. This time production was shared equally between Jerry Kennedy and Buzz Cason, and the singer came up with some good material, especially I Can’t Quit You and Don Everly’s I Wonder If I Care As Much. He revived the old 1950s hit with a strong reading, and it was his last single release of 1981.
During his 24-years in the music business, Dickey Lee has enjoyed a fascinating career. It’s possible that if he had pushed himself a little harder he could have been a bigger name, but he is one of those entertainers who enjoys a happy family life and refuses to go out on the road for days on end.
His style is totally his very own. He sings through his nose, slightly garbled, slightly flat, and conveys particular intimacy. His very lack of technique makes him sound sincere. His records have a smothering, emotional flow. Through his music you can tell that he is a born romantic whose consequent vulnerability is barely covered up with a dose of gentle, self-deflating irony. Dickey Lee is just a loveable human being, really.
Dickey Lee Albums
Never Ending Song Of Love – RCA LSP – 4637
Ashes Of Love – RCA LSA – 3177 (U.K. release) LSP – 4715 (USA Release)
Baby, Bye Bye – RCA LSP – 4791
Crying Over You – RCA – 4857
Sparklin' Brown Eyes – RCA APL1 – 0311
Rockey – RCA APL1 – 1243
Angels, Roses & Rain – RCA APL1 – 1725
Dickey Lee – Mercury SRM 1-5020
Dickey Lee Again – Mercury SRM 1-5028
Everybody Loves A Winner – Mercury SRM 1-6006