He never stood any taller than 4’11”, but he cast an impressive shadow on eight decades of country music.
James Cecil Dickens – known to generations of Grand Ole Opry fans as Little Jimmy Dickens – died in a Nashville area hospital on Friday. He was 94.
Dickens died of cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke on Christmas Day. He is survived by his wife, Mona Dickens, married since 1971, and two daughters, Pamela Detert and Lisa King. Dickens was the longest running member of the Opry, joining in 1948, and last performed at the Opry on Dec. 20, 2014, singing “Out Behind The Barn” and delivering his trademark comedy. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time however a public visitation and a public service is being planned.
“The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens,” said 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-kind entertainer and a great soul whose spirit will live on for years to come.”
The oldest member of the Opry was also its longest-tenured, inducted in 1948. The oldest of 13 children raised on a farm in Bolt, West Virginia, Dickens started his career performing on local radio shows until he met Roy Acuff, one of the Opry’s biggest stars, who invited him to come to Nashville and appear on the show.
A recording contract followed and his first single, “Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait)” was released on Columbia Records in 1949. Its success prompted his good friend Hank Williams to bestow him with the affectionate nickname “Tater.”
More novelty hits followed, including “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “Hillbilly Fever” and his first and only no. 1 single, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” in 1965.
“I kind of got branded as a novelty singer right at the start of my career,” he said in the book Around the Opry Table in 2007. “I had been doing other kinds of songs, ballads and gospel, but once “Tater” hit the Top 10, I had to follow that up with another like it. The novelty songs were how radio knew me. It didn t bother me.”
It was longtime fan and fellow West Virginian Brad Paisley who introduced Dickens to a new generation of country fans, using the elder icon in his videos and stage shows, as well as appearing with him countless times on the Opry stage.
“He’s from West Virginia and is well-known there and beloved. I was a great fan of his comedy and whole demeanor,” said Paisley in a 2010 interview with PEOPLE. “When I was a teenager, I met him when I opened for him on the Saturday night Jamboree USA radio show in Wheeling at the Capitol Music Hall.”
When Paisley moved to Nashville and performed at the Grand Ole Opry, he re-introduced himself to his hero backstage and extended an invitation. “I was a brand-new singer in town and he didn’t know me at all, but I knew he liked to fish so I asked him if he would like to go fishing together some time and he said yes, and we went just a few days later. That was our first date.”
And the start of an enduring friendship. “The more I got to know him it was real apparent that he is one of the most unique and special human beings that ever lived,” Paisley said. “I like the idea of what he has done with his life. He has made the absolute most of every situation he has ever been handed. He has never said no to any crazy thing that I asked him because he doesn’t care about anything other than ‘Will it work, will it get a laugh?’ That is such a refreshing outlook on life.”
Dickens appeared in several Paisley videos, taped bits broadcast during Paisley’s live shows, and recorded bonus comedy tracks on Paisley’s albums as a member of the novelty band The Kung-Pao Buckaroos, which also included George Jones and Bill Anderson. He made 13 trips to Europe, twice entertained troops in Vietnam and in 1964 became the first country artist to circle the globe. And he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983.
But Dickens was always most comfortable standing on the sacred circle of the Grand Ole Opry stage, either performing or hosting a segment.
He turned 94 on December 19 and celebrated his birthday the following night doing what he loves best – performing on the Saturday night Opry.