Dub Dickerson was one of those artists who toured constantly, mixed in the right circles of musicians and made a fair handful of recordings, but didn’t leave us much in the way of historical information. Even the performers he toured and played with don’t recall a great deal about him and, like countless other singers, he just seems to have spent his fifteen year musical career just outside of the spotlight.
Born Willis Dickerson on September 10th 1927 in Grand Saline, Van Zandt County, Texas, his first love of music came whilst growing up on the family farm, in the shape of Gene Autry and his familiar style of Cowboy tunes.
Although he enjoyed no hits on Decca and Capitol (1952-1955), he played the Opry and the Big D. Jamboree, and scored as a songwriter – he wrote « Look what thoughts will do » , a huge hit for Lefty Frizzell, and later « Stood up » for Ricky Nelson, in addition to his own recordings, like « My gal Gertie » (a number which enjoyed some currency among Hillbilly boogie and early Rockabilly fans.) He took to calling himself « The boy with the grin in his voice » and threw little catches – little ‘grins ‘ – into many performances, regardless of appropriateness.
Apart from the gimmick, there’s a lot of fine surviving music from Dub’s first Imperial release from 1950 to his last known (after Decca, Capitol and Sims in 1956) recordings for Sims in 1962, or Blacbird in the early ’70s. How much traveling Dickerson actually did is unknown, but he seems to have formed his first band not far from Grand Saline, then he moved to Dallas very early in 1950. He made here at Jim Beck‘s studio his first recordings. Beck had already placed masters of aspiring singers with independant labels like Bullet and Royalty, apart from a couple of dozen sides on his own Dude label. So Dickerson went to Lew Chudd’s Imperial label. His style was structured around the Western Swing craze that was sweeping throughout Texas at that time, and although he would stray from this style later in his career (even trying in 1956 to 1958 his hands at Rockabilly and Rock’n’roll), his own brand of Hillbilly bop always kept some of his original Swing elements. Although the standard amount of songs cut at one Imperial session was four, for one reason or another Dickerson only recorded two songs. Vocally he sounded assured on both sides, « Owl hoot blues » and « Ain’t got no doggone gal » (Imperial 8083), two novelties backed by an ex-HawaIIan guitarist, Eddie Martin. The latter also built his own console, precursor of the pedal steel. The rest of the team (they were called the Frontiersmen) consisted of Don Poole on bass and « Highpocket » Busse on accordion, while Dickerson played rhythm guitar.
« Owl hoot blues »
« Ain’t got no doggone gal »
Nothing much came of the single, so Dickerson went to work as a feature with Homer Clemons (another Imperial artist) at the Round-Up club in Dallas. Meanwile, probably because he had met Lefty Frizzell at Beck’s studio, he placed him with a lovely ballad « Look what thoughts will do » (Columbia 20772) [he first cut his own version on Sims in 1962]. Riley Crabtree also recorded « Always together (never apart) » on Columbia 20873 (October 1951) from the Dickerson’s songbook.
Lefty Frizzell: « Look what thoughts will do »
Riley Crabtree: »Always together »
Next step was a contract with Decca. Its Country A&R man Paul Cohen went one day in Dallas. He merely swept up everybody Don Law (Columbia A&R man) had passed on : Jim Beck cut Dickerson, who brought with him for the session the current Big D Jamboree house-band : Leon Rhodes (lead guitar), Jimmy Kelley (steel), Buddy Griffin (rhythm guitar), Bobby Williamson (bass), Wade Wood on fiddle and Madge Suttle on the piano. The session took place on April 3, 1951, and produced 4 tracks, among them the fine novelty « Money talks » (Decca 46329) with its flipside, the bizarre « Cinchee hotel » ; but the ballads seemed to be promising : « Just in time to be too late », and the nicely realized « If I had you back » (Decca 46353). He then began in the meantime to be regular on Waco’s Big State Jamboree, an answer to Big D Jamboree (Dallas).
« Money talks »
« Just in time to be too late »
But again, as Imperial, Decca didn’t renew Dub Dickerson’s contract, and he did must support very secondary artists on South Texas tours, until he got in touch with a capable Charley Wright as booking agent : he finally attracted major attention. In early 1953 Capitol Country A&R Ken Nelson of Capitol Records signed him and very soon he went to record in Nashville Castle Hotel studio, with local studio players, as Jerry Byrd (steel), Chet Atkins (guitar) and others. The cornerstone of his first Capitol session was « The bells of Monterrey » (# 2504), possibly because of the current craze for Latin and quasi-Latin flavored material, like « Don’t let the stars get in your eyes ». The session also yelded the fast novelty « Sweet bunch of bitterweeds », featuring possibly fellow Dallas-based labelmate Sonny James on fiddle. At this stage, Dub Dickerson began to be called « The boy with a grin in his voice » in Billboard, a surname which even got its way into future Capitol releases like the engaging uptempos « Mama laid the law down »(# 2719) or the solid, for many a famous proto-rockabilly « My gal Gertie »(# 2947) from September 1953, which recalled the insouciant fun of « Money talks » from the Decca days but was only actually a fun, uptempo hillbilly song adorned only with a rollicking piano (possibly Marvin Hughes). Notice the first version (out of three) of the great uptempo « Mama laid the law down » (# 2719).
« The bells of Monterrey »
« Sweet bunch of bitterweeds »
« Mama laid the law down »
« My gal Gertie »
Dickerson was extensively touring and kept a high profile via appearances on WFAA-TV’s March of dimes charity telethon, along with Sonny James, Bobby Williamson and Arlie Duff. The third Capitol session took place during a tour, again in Nashville (Jerry Byrd on steel and Sonny James on fiddle were probable backing him), and produced some ‘cat‘ music, as in « Look, look, look »(# 2947). It was also during this period (Spring 1954) that Dickerson had been guested on the Grand Ole Opry, and Billboard reveals that his stage’s clothes and equipement were stolen during a Chicago appearance. He had to borrow an outfit from Dallas pal Buddy Griffin. He appeared also on the Dallas’ « Big D Jamboree ».
« Look, look, look«
His final Capitol session (January 1955) saw the release of « Under the heading of my business » and « I must’ve drove my mules too hard » (# 3099), two very enjoyable tracks. Dickerson was more then at ease with uptempo novelties than country ballads, and more with the changing market towards the burgeoning Rock’n’roll. The latter tune was co-written by Mae Boren Axton (co-writer of « Heartbreak hotel »), and Dickerson pursued his songwriting with her, which occurred in his next record for Sims (in Spring 1956) and one of his best known discs : « Shot gun wedding » (# 106), which unfortunately went nowhere. Despite Rock’n’roll, he continued to do what he’d always done : early ’50s hillbilly boogie. He continued to tour, as far as Kansas and Missouri, then taking off for Florida.
« Under the heading of my business »
« I must’ve drove my mules too hard »
« Shot gun wedding »
1957 saw him as a songwriter for Dennis Herrold (born 1927 in Va.), who recorded his « Hip hip baby » on Imperial # 5482 (fall 1957); himself cut in Fort Worth, TX Cliff Herring’s studio [Jim Beck being dead in April 1956], the demo « Boppin’ in the dark », proof he was reconciled to rock’n’roll. More important, Dickerson co-wrote « Stood up », a massive hit for Ricky Nelson. This led Imperial boss Lew Chudd to sign him again on Imperial, 8 years after his first contract. Alas, the entire session remained unissued : only survived « Sugar lips » (February 1958) published on a later compilation. Circa 1958, he cut another demo for the producer Jim Shell in Dallas, so « Don’t knock it » is a pure Rollin’ bopper (great rinky-dink piano and steel); it’s anybody’s guess as to what he wanted to do with it, except offer it to anyone else.
Dennis Herrold, « Hip hip baby »
Dub Dickerson, « Boppin’ in the dark »
Ricky Nelson, « Stood up »
Dub Dickerson, « Don’t knock it »
In 1959 Dickerson had a single on the Dallas-based Tower label (# 101) coupling a country pop « All over you » with a ballad « My impression of you » surely written with Ricky Nelson in mind. Another single followed in 1960 on the short-lived Paul Cohen (former Decca country A&R man) Todd label, and this, although still commercial for 1960, had more country feel than the Tower issue : « The bottle » had ubiquitous banjo, as in many country records of the era, and backing voices. Fortunately Dickerson revived without era’s ’embellishments’ his « Mama laid the law down »[version 2] with some fine guitar work.
« Mama laid the law down« (version 2)
The last track was not a hit, not more than in 1953. However Dickerson kept on trying with a third version in 1962. He cut a whole album for Russell Sims in Dallas. Sims recorded at that time former mid-level stars (Floyd Tillman or Johnnie Lee Wills), so Dickerson had for his session a top-cracking band (ex. musicians from the Big D Jamboree house-band, Joe Poovey on rhythm, former Jim Beck’ studio pianist Bill Simmons, for example) and could mix country with a few stabs of updated rockabilly, among his own « Look what thoughts will do », as « Lovin’est lovin’ » or « I oughta hate you« .
« Look what thoughts will do »
« Lovin’est lovin’ »
« I oughta hate you »
And that, for all intents and purposes, was it. Dickerson faded further and further from the scene. He died in Dallas on October 28, 1979.
Sources: page devoted to Dub Dickerson from Tony Biggs’ »Cowboys, honky tonks and hepcats » ; notes by Kevin Coffey to « Dub Dickerson – « Boppin’ in the dark »( BF CD) ; my own researches : 45rpm.com ; 78rpm-world (mainly our good friend Ronald Keppner’s collection!) ; YouTube (for further Sims LP 102 tracks) ; HBR CD 02 « Dub Dickerson » (for Imperial, Decca, Capitol and Sims tracks); « Rockin’ rarities » LP 2005-4 for « Boppin’ in the dark » ; White label « Aaaah Rockabilly » LP 8821 for « Don’t knock it »; Willem Agenant’s site « Columbia 20000 » (Lefty Frizzell and Riley Crabtree tunes).