Longtime Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, as easily recognized for his rhinestone-studded stage costumes as for his diminutive stature, has died of cardiac arrest. Dickens, who turned 94 on December 19th, was admitted to a Nashville-area hospital on Christmas Day after suffering a stroke. He last performed at the Opry on December 20th as part of his birthday celebration.
The country singer was best known for such novelty hits as “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” and “Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait),” the latter of which inspired fellow Opry member Hank Williams to nickname him “Tater.” Younger country fans, meanwhile, have recognized the 4-foot-11 singer for his appearances in several videos by Brad Paisley, who during his teenage years opened several shows for the country legend.
James Cecil Dickens was the oldest of 13 children born to a farmer in the coal-camp community of Bolt, West Virginia. He began his career in radio while studying at West Virginia University. He would walk several miles to and from the nearby town of Beckley, where he would open a morning broadcast on WJLS by imitating the crow of a rooster. Signed to Columbia Records in 1948, Dickens was first invited to perform on the Opry by Roy Acuff. Early hits for the singer included “Country Boy,” “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “My Heart’s Bouquet” and “Hillbilly Fever,” all of which hit the Top 10 between 1949 and 1950. In addition to 13 trips to Europe, Dickens twice entertained the troops in Vietnam, and in 1964, became the first country artist to completely circle the globe on a world tour. His 1965 hit “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” (watch a performance of the song below) topped the country chart for two weeks and also reached Number 15 on the pop chart. The success of that single led to his appearance on a number of network TV series, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It was, in fact, Carson’s famous comedic putdowns that inspired “Bird of Paradise” songwriter Neal Merritt to pen the tune (in 20 minutes).
Other hits throughout Dickens’ career included “Out Behind the Barn” and his signature song, “I’m Little But I’m Loud.” In 1997, Martina McBride included a snippet of a performance of that song, recorded live when she was seven years old, on her album Evolution. The self-deprecating entertainer often joked about his size onstage saying that he was “Willie Nelson after taxes.” He also participated in a series of comic bits with CMA Awards show co-hosts Paisley and Carrie Underwood, including a scene-stealing Kanye West-inspired bit in 2009 and a 2011 role in the show as “Little Justin Bieber.”
In 2008, Dickens ascended a step-ladder on the Opry stage to invite 6-foot-6 country singer Trace Adkins to be a Grand Ole Opry member. Another Opry membership invite, this time in 2013 for the band Old Crow Medicine Show, had Dickens returning to the stage following a battle with ill health.
“The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens,” says Pete Fisher, Opry Vice President and General Manager. “He loved the audience and his Opry family, and all of us loved him back. He was a one-of-a-kind entertainer and a great soul whose spirit will live on for years to come.”
“It’s like losing a best friend,” Nancy Jones tells Rolling Stone Country. The widow of country icon George Jones was close to Dickens, as was her late husband. In fact, Jones released a tribute to the music of Little Jimmy in 1964, titled George Jones Sings Like the Dickens!. “He and George were so close. They would room together on the road. And Jimmy knew all the good, true stories about George. He’d tell me things even I didn’t know.”
After Jones’s death, Nancy says she “kidnapped” Dickens while the Opry star was recuperating from an illness to show him the Possum’s grave. “He was in his PJs and robe and I put him in the car and took him to George’s gravesite,” she recalls, laughing. “He made a lot of people smile.”
Paisley, Dickens’ comedic foil in his later years, remembered the man he called “my hero” in a lengthy post on his website. “Much will be said and written about his incredible and unique place in Country Music history. Which could fill a book. But that isn’t how I’ll remember him,” Paisley wrote. “I will remember the human being that best check-marked all the boxes of a complete and wonderful life. My hero.”
Little Jimmy Dickens was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983. He and his wife, Mona, were married on Christmas Eve in 1971. In 1996, the couple celebrated their 25th anniversary by renewing their marriage vows on the venerable Opry stage.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak)