NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Little Jimmy Dickens, a diminutive singer-songwriter who was the oldest cast member of the Grand Ole Opry, has died. He was 94.
Dickens died Friday at a Nashville-area hospital of cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke on Christmas Day, Opry spokeswoman Jessie Schmidt said.
Dickens, who stood 4-foot-11, had performed on the Opry almost continuously since 1948. His last performance was Dec. 20 as part of his birthday celebration. He turned 94 a day earlier.
“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.”
Country legend Hank Williams Sr. nicknamed him “Tater” based on Dickens’ song “Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait).”
His novelty songs, including his biggest hit “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” about good and bad luck, earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983.
It crossed over from a country hit to become a hit on the pop charts — a rarity in those days — with its rollicking chorus: “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose; May an elephant caress you with its toes; May your wife be plagued with runners in her hose; May the bird of paradise fly up your nose.”
Dickens said in a 2009 Associated Press interview that his first impression of the song was “it was a nice piece of material to inject in my show. Then I went to Vietnam (to perform) for two months and when I got home it was my pay: a No. 1 song.”
The guitarist made more than a dozen trips to perform in Europe and entertained troops in Vietnam three times.
His other hits included “A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed,” ”Out Behind the Barn,” ”Country Boy” and “I’m Little But I’m Loud.”
He is credited with introducing rhinestone suits to country music around 1950, taking a suggestion from Los Angeles clothing designer Nudie.
“He said that when the lights hit them, the audience would go ‘Wow,’ ” Dickens recalled in the 2009 interview. “He was 100 percent right.”
Dickens was born in Bolt, West Virginia, the 13th and youngest child in a coal-mining family. Coal mining was the main industry in his area, but it wasn’t for him.
“I wouldn’t have worked the mines. I wasn’t large enough,” he once said.
One of his first jobs was crowing like a rooster on a radio station in Beckley, West Virginia, to begin the station’s broadcasting for the day.
“I was not paid for it. I was just hanging around and they let me do that. I did it for a year or so, then eventually I worked my way to doing a song,” he said.
Before becoming a nationally known country singer, he worked at radio stations in Indianapolis; Cincinnati; Topeka, Kansas; and Saginaw, Michigan.
Dickens said in 2009 that he’d never been self-conscious about his height.
“It’s been very good for me. I’ve made fun of it, and get a laugh here and there,” he said.
In October 2008, Dickens energetically got on a step ladder on the Opry stage to get eye level with 6-foot-6 country singer Trace Adkins.
“You’re so tall, if you fell down, you’d be halfway home when you got up,” Dickens told him.
Dickens had surgery Jan. 13, 2009, to repair a subdural hematoma, a form of brain injury. He spent a week in a hospital, then went to a rehab center, but resumed performing in late February 2009.
He was treated at the Mayo Clinic and Vanderbilt Medical Center in 2008 for a bloodstream infection and urinary tract infection. He was hospitalized for pneumonia in December 2004.
His Opry performances in 2009 were sprinkled with humor about his age: “You know you’re 88 when you see a pretty girl in a bikini and your Pacemaker makes the garage door go up.”
Copyright The Associated Press