If you want definitive proof that Deke Dickerson isn’t really from this decade, consider Exhibit A: Number One Hit Record! (HighTone Records, 1998), the roots-based solo debut of Dickerson and his band, the Ecco-Fonics. The disc also offers definitive proof that Dickerson should be closely monitored by music lovers — particularly those who are enemies of faux-retro crap. .
It’s as if Dickerson had recorded the CD in the ’50s, then kept it in the vault until now. And if he hadn’t been born in the late ’60s, you could make a pretty good case that he’d done just that. Dickerson’s vocals often sound like Jerry Lee Lewis (minus the penchant for howling), and guest piano player Carl “Sonny” Leyland (of Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys) sounds an awful lot like Lewis, too. Half the songs are lesser-played classics from the ’50s — including the legendary Treniers’ 1952 classic “Poon Tang,” Johnny Getz’s “Hot Rod Queen” and Freddie Hart’s “Snatch It & Grab It.” And the Ecco-Fonics’ originals fit into the mix seamlessly — almost eerily, in fact. Take “Lady Killin’ Papa,” for instance: “Hello Ladies, can you believe your eyes/ I can’t help it if I’m twice as cute as all the other guys/ they say that some guys got it/ well I’ve got ‘It’ to spare/ I’m a Lady Killin’ Papa goin’ through life without a care.”
The entire disc resonates as if it had been recorded at a prom 40 years ago, thanks to some vintage effects and even more classic guest musicians. “The name of the band came from a [guitar mechanism called an] ‘Ecco unit’ [that] dates back to the ’50s [and] which also is the name of my studio,” says Dickerson, whose hobby is collecting records and guitars. On-stage, Dickerson sports an awe-inspiring, ’50s-vintage, custom-made, double-neck Mosrite guitar — the kind played by his heroes, the late Joe “King of the Strings” Maphis and Larry Collins (of the rockabilly Collins Kids), who joins Dickerson on the album.
Other guest performers on the disc include Joey D’Ambrosio of Bill Haley’s original Comets (if his name isn’t familiar, his landmark sax part on “Rock Around the Clock” is); Claude Trenier of the aforementioned Treniers; and talented steel-guitar player Jeremy Wakefield. “I had a list of dream people who I wanted to play on the album, to make what I had in my head come alive,” Dickerson confides.
And though the guitarist possesses a rare artistry that actually transcends all time barriers, it’s easy to see why he’s so often lumped in the “retro” category. For example, the cover of Number One Hit Record! contains all the ingredients of a ’50s record sleeve: There’s Dickerson with his trademark close-cropped hair, Sunday grin and sharp suit and tie, a vintage yellow 45-rpm dangling by his side.
But if Dickerson’s music is to be judged, he believes it should be judged on its own merits, not by its success in reviving the old rockabilly, country-jazz, jump-blues, swing and hillbilly boogie, which so greatly influence the musician. “I don’t pretend that I live in the ’50s,” Dickerson insists. Nevertheless, he shuns most contemporary performers, even those who call themselves “roots” or “rockabilly.” “I don’t think there’s been much good done [musically] for the last 25 to 30 years,” he observes. “I’m just [playing music] that I think [is] well-done.” As if to prove the point that new often equals bad, he adds, “The Beverly Hillbillies is the greatest comedy series of all time. It still has yet to be equaled in terms of sheer comed[ic] genius.”
Although Dickerson is barely out of his 20s, he has already appeared on 14 albums and 50 singles with bands other than the Ecco-Fonics. Dickerson started playing music in his native Missouri, at age 13, because, he remembers, “I was bored out of my mind.” He says his Virginia-born parents were “super-hillbilly,” and Dickerson adopted many of their tastes. “I guess it’s kind of inbred,” he remarks. “I grew up listening to bluegrass, and my dad turned me on to R&B. My biggest influences have always been the guys who started the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing: Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis — all these country guys who got turned on to black music, [but] basically kept all of their ‘hillbillyism’ intact, you know what I mean?”
At age 17, Dickerson formed an indie surf-garage band called Untamed Youth, which went on to release four albums. The band was based in Yucaipa, Calif., a town he soon spurned for Los Angeles because, as he puts it, “Yucaipa sucks.” In L.A., he joined Dave Stuckey to form the critically acclaimed, neotraditional Dave & Deke Combo. The two released their second album, Hollywood Barn Dance (Heyday Records, 1996) to raves from fanzines and favorable mainstream press, but they split before they could make it big. “I had a very good time in that band,” Dickerson told one reporter. “But … [Dave] wanted to have a Western-swing band with fiddles and steel guitar and the whole lot, and I really just wanted to play some rock ‘n’ roll.”
Dickerson’s liner notes for Number One Hit Record! proclaim, “Here at long last, my friends, is a collection of music of my very own.” The album and its attendant touring, says Dickerson, represents “a sort of a culmination of all the things that I like. The neat thing about doing what we do is that it really is timeless. We do it in front of rock ‘n’ rollers, old timers, punk rockers — they all dig it. There’s sort of a core audience of rockabilly people, then we get a lot of ‘guitar geek’ people, then a lot of alternative country people … just a lot of people who like to come out and dance and have a good time.”
Now on tour in the Northeast, Dickerson says the hillbilly in him is “looking forward to heading south.” He played in Asheville last year ago with Untamed Youth (who still reunite occasionally), opening for Southern Culture on the Skids at Be Here Now. Joining him on-stage at the Sept. 10 Downtown After Five will be (who else?) the Ecco-Fonics: guitarist Johnny Noble, bassist Brent Harding and drummer Brian Nevill. Dickerson says the band will play both songs from Number One Hit Record! and tunes from their upcoming release, More Million Sellers (HighTone Records) — due to hit the streets on Oct. 19.
“It’s kind of the same [music], but if anything, it’s even more diverse and crazy than the last album,” Dickerson explains. “It’s kind of schizophrenic, really. … I kind of am concerned, but I think people will like it a lot. It’s about half originals and half covers again. I tend to choose the most obscure covers imaginable.” The ones on More Million Sellers will include Earl King’s “Let the Good Times Roll” and a Warren Smith song called “So Long, I’m Gone.” There will even be a new version of The Beverly Hillbillies theme song, sung by the man who performed the original version — Jerry Scoggins himself. “I wrote new lyrics and had him sing them,” Dickerson reveals. “I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the song, but I will give you a peek: ‘Now it’s time to say goodbye to Deke and all his pals/he’d like to shake the guys’ hands/while he winks at all the gals.” Then there’ll be originals, like “Nightmare of a Woman” — which chronicles Dickerson’s recent divorce. Once again, he’s joined by D’Ambrosio and Wakefield, along with a host of other artists — including guitarist Billy Zoom of the seminal late-’80s L.A. punk band, X.
Even after performing with Zoom, though, it’s doubtful that Dickerson will lose his retro label. But the artist remains resolute about his music. “I’d really rather do what I think should be done and be stuck with a retro tag, than do contemporary stuff,” he notes with a sigh, adding, “Everybody knows The Beverly Hillbillies theme. [And when they hear my version], they’ll forget the horrible new movie.”