"Little" Jimmy Dempsey
"Little" Jimmy Dempsey
Jimmy Dempsey was born on August 23rd 1937 in Atlanta Georgia with a rare brittle bone condition. Throughout his life this condition resulted in 74 broken legs, 10 broken arms and a broken back. As a result, Jimmy walked on crutches his entire life. For most people that’s where the story would have ended. But for Jimmy, it was just the beginning.
At the age of 2 1/2 Jimmy began his career in the music business as a child singer and radio personality with an appearance on the Major Bowes National Network Radio Show in New York City. After that appearance he was invited to sing at the famous Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood California with Eddie Cantor, Phil Harris, Alice Faye and Betty Grable. Upon returning to Atlanta at age 5 he began appearing at many live events and singing on 5 radio shows a day. Between the ages of 8 and 11, he traveled on the weekends throughout the south and in his home town of Atlanta, performing on stage shows between the movie serial matinees with most of the major cowboy movie stars of that era such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tim McCoy, Tex Ritter, Sunset Carson, Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger),Charles Starrett (The Durango Kid), Lash Larue, Monty Hale, Smiley Burnette, Fuzzy Jones and The Son's of the Pioneers just to mention a few. Cowboys weren’t the only stars. He also did appearances with Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bela Lagosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and the Three Stooges.
Throughout his teens he continued performing at local events and became a very popular figure in the Atlanta area. He was a favorite fixture for some time on the Atlanta TV Show - Ed Caparal’s Bandstand Matinee where he amazed everyone with his dancing prowess even while on crutches. At age 17 he began his recording career as a singer with the first of 6 vocal records over a 3-year period. Three of those vocal recordings made the charts. The most popular was “Bop Hop” a rockabilly song that really captured the feel of the era. To this day “Bop Hop” is still a very rare and sought after single by record collectors. At the age of 18, Jimmy bought his first guitar and within a week had taught himself well enough to play his first show as a backup guitarist for the Lanny Frye Combo and then the Cherokee Boys a popular local Atlanta band. Shortly after that, Jimmy put his own band together and started doing local shows and dances in Atlanta and throughout the south.
During the 50’s and 60’s Jimmy had a total of 12 released and 5 unreleased vocal records. In the late 50’s, Jimmy started doing local studio work that led to him recording and working for Bill Lowery, one of music’s biggest producers and executives. While with Lowery, Jimmy did a lot of work with two fledgling artists at that time named Jerry Reed and Ray Stevens. Often after their sessions you could find the three sitting in the back of a convertible, singing and playing guitar to entertain the patrons at a very popular local chili dog drive-in, “The Varsity”. Some of the other artists that Jimmy worked with through Lowery were Joe South, Billy Jo Royal and The Vogues and on and on. By this time, Jimmy was in high demand as a studio player in Atlanta, even lending his skills on the guitar to rock and soul superstar Little Richard. He also appeared at numerous events around town and throughout the south with a multitude of stars such as Brenda Lee, Connie Stevens, Faron Young, Ray Price, Carl Perkins and so many more.
As Jimmy’s popularity continued to grow, he began traveling to Nashville in the late 50’s and early 60’s to appear on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree Radio Show which aired on WSM following the Grand Ole Opry. In 1961 Jimmy decided to release his first instrumental guitar album named “Modern Guitar Artistry” by “Little” Jimmy Dempsey on his own label, JCD Records. He released a second instrumental album on JCD Records in 1962 called “America’s No. 1 Guitar”. Both albums were well received by radio both locally and regionally which led to even more personal appearances, studio, radio and TV work. Throughout the 60’s Jimmy also became very popular on the Atlanta nightclub scene, sometimes playing several different clubs in the same night. He might go from working a show with Aretha Franklin at one club to headlining at a jazz club across town with the “Little” Jimmy Dempsey Trio. On other occasions you could catch him working on the same bill with Merle Haggard or the Gosdin Brothers. Still on another night you might find him working with comedians such as Henny Youngman, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Van Dyke and Gabe Kaplan at some other nightclub. During this period he was also doing shows for the USO and the U.S. Army by entertaining the troops at various base locations from Georgia to the Mojave Dessert. Jimmy even did performances for the Kennedy Administration as well as a command performance for General Westmoreland’s retirement party.
By the mid 60’s Jimmy had 7 instrumental albums under his belt and was now the Musical Director / Co-Host of the Hank Morgan Morning Show on WSB-TV. He was also musical director for TV Party Line a syndicated country music show seen in 42 states. He also starred in several of his own TV specials which aired on other stations in Atlanta. In 1967 Jimmy released the album “The Guitar Country of “Little” Jimmy Dempsey which spawned the instrumental hit “Rhode Island Red” and a multitude of acknowledgments and awards which thrust Jimmy into the national spotlight. Jimmy began traveling to Nashville to be a guest on the Ralph Emery Radio Show late night on WSM. He also made several appearances on the Bill Anderson TV show. In the late 60's The Espana Guitar Co. released a “Little” Jimmy Dempsey Model guitar because of his ever-growing popularity as an artist and instrumental guitar great. 1969 saw the release of the ABC album ”The Strings of My Guitar” which brought Jimmy even more popularity in Nashville as a super picker. After hearing the smooth fluent licks played on his award winning albums Nashville producers made Jimmy the must have session guitarist to get that ever desired Nashville Sound. Over a 2-yr. period Jimmy was awarded the following industry honors:
1968 Record World Magazine - No.1 Most Promising Instrumentalist.
1968 Cash Box - No.12 Most Programmed Instrumentalist in the Country.
1969 Cash Box - No.1 Most Promising Instrumentalist;
1969 Cash Box - No.2 Most Programmed Guitarist in a World Wide Disc Jockey Poll.
1969 Cash Box - No.7 Most Programmed Instrumentalist.
As the 60’s were drawing to a close and giving way to the 70’s Jimmy found himself in high demand for session work in Nashville. Traveling back and forth from Atlanta to Nashville on a weekly basis became increasingly inconvenient therefore Jimmy made the difficult decision to move his family from his hometown of Atlanta to Nashville. Jimmy was the hired gun of choice often doing 3 to 4 sessions a day / 6 days a week working with the biggest producers and artist's in Nashville. Shortly after moving to Nashville, Jimmy signed with Plantation Records and legendary producer Shelby Singleton. They soon released the instrumental album “Little” Jimmy Dempsey Picks On Big Johnny Cash which garnered 2 Grammy Nominations for Album of the Year and Best Country Instrumental Performance. His 2nd album on Plantation called “Home Cooked” was also widely praised. Jimmy quickly became Shelby’s session Leader and throughout the 70’s he produced a multitude of superstars including Jeannie C. Riley, Webb Pierce, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leroy Van Dyke, Charlie Walker, Jimmy C. Newman, Hank Lockland, Dave Dudley, David Allen Coe and so many more. This also led to Jimmy hiring and giving up and coming musicians their first shot in the Nashville studio scene. Many going on to become some of the best and most used musicians around.
After moving to Nashville Jimmy also began working for Producer Joel Gentry of Skylite Sing. Throughout the 70’s he played on over 500 gospel sessions with such stars as The Blackwood Brothers, The Statesmen, The Rebels, JD Sumner and the Stamps, The Lafevres and countless others while on many occasions donning the title of producer. While continuing to record his own instrumental gospel albums, Jimmy released “Award Winning Guitar” in 1972 on Skylite. He again received high honors by placing 2nd in voting for the Grammy Award in the “Best Inspirational Performance” category losing out only to Elvis Presley receiving a runner up plaque from the academy.
The 70’s were a big decade and a busy one. Jimmy literally recorded on thousands of recording sessions but also turned down thousands of sessions to spend time with and coach his two sons and their youth sports teams. Jimmy quickly became the guitarist to watch. Guitarists, Grady Martin, Jimmy Bryant and Roy Clark as well as other stars routinely dropped by his sessions just to say hello and try to steal a lick or two. Sometimes, when recording at RCA, Chet Atkins would even stop in to see his old friend. Upon seeing visitors in the control room, and for comic relief, Jimmy would quickly put a handkerchief over his hand as if to hide what he was playing on the neck. These antics would lead to a complete breakdown of the session with laughter. But it was soon back to work and work he did on countless sessions with the likes of Roger Miller, Dottie West, Eddy Arnold, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, Lynn Anderson, Jeannie C. Riley, Freddy Fender, Kenny Price, Red Sovine, Rex Allen Jr., Roy Drusky, George Morgan, Jeanie Sealy, Grandpa Jones, Skeeter Davis, Jean Sheppard, Patti Page, Carol Channing, Jan Howard, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and on and on.
The 70’s marked the release of the following solo albums “More Award Winning Guitar”, “Guitars Golden Rhapsodies” and “Tennessee Saturday Night Fever”. Jimmy was proud that his son Tim decided to follow in his footsteps as a studio musician, surprisingly, not as a guitarist but as a drummer. Father and son shared the honor of playing alongside some of the greatest musicians in the world, with some of the biggest stars in the world. This carried a great sense of pride for both. As the 70’s drew to a close, Jimmy, who had worked in the business since age 5, was contemplating retirement.
Unceremoniously and to the shock of all who knew him, in 1980, at the ripe old age of 43, Jimmy simply unplugged his guitar and said his good-byes to Nashville and the recording business. Jimmy and his wife Tena fulfilled their dream of retiring to a big farm. But Jimmy, being the avid sports lover, decided to add a twist to this new chapter in his life. He decided to try his hand at breeding and training racehorses. After thorough research, that’s exactly what he did. The Dempsey’s were very successful as owners and trainers of standard bred harness racing horses. After nearly 15 years of running a farm and stable of anywhere from 28 to 40 horses, the Dempsey's decided it was time to scale back and relax.
Then in 1996 Jimmy received a call out of the blue from Johnny Carson, co-founder of The Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame. Jimmy had been selected for induction into the hall of fame for his contributions and achievements in the music industry and as a native Atlanta hero. Jimmy was quite surprised and thrilled to be receiving such an honor from his hometown especially since he thought he had been long forgotten in the music industry since his retirement 16 years earlier. After his induction ceremony and all the press surrounding the event, Jimmy’s phone started to ring. He started hearing from people in Nashville that he hadn’t heard from in years. His answer was simple "I don't think I want to play anymore but I will consider producing". These voices from the past not only intrigued but enticed Jimmy to come out of retirement to produce sessions in order to recapture that Nashville sound that had been missing for such a long time. More awards soon followed including “The Cotton and Jane Carrier Award”, “The Georgia Cherry Blossom Festival Country Music Award” and the “Fiddlin’ John Carson Father of Country Music Award”.
With all this revived interest and recognition Jimmy thought he would test the waters one more time to see what would happen. Jimmy had an unreleased instrumental album that had been in the can for more than 20 years. In 1997 Jimmy along with his son Tim traveled to Nashville on several occasions to master and then release the CD “Legendary Hall of Fame Guitarist Jimmy Dempsey”. To Jimmy’s surprise the CD was well received by DJ's who commented that Jimmy's “clean and unencumbered sound is what has been missing from today’s music”, a true testament to Jimmy’s timeless style and phrasing. Music industry trade writers agreed too that this was a “breath of fresh air”. Things started to snowball after the release and Jimmy soon learned that he had made the final 12 in voting for an instrumental Grammy. This was remarkable considering Jimmy had no major label push or distribution.
In September 1997, Jimmy received the “Atlanta Society of Entertainers Musician of the Year Award”. Jimmy received yet another honor by being named as an inductee into the Inaugural Class of the “North American Country Music Hall of Fame”. The ceremonies were scheduled to be held in Tennessee in March of 1998 and Jimmy was asked to help get this fledgling organization off the ground. On top of all this, Jimmy was very proud on receiving word from Johnny Carson in Atlanta that his son Tim had been chosen to join him in November 1997 as a fellow inductee into the “Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame” for his own contributions as a studio drummer. Sadly however, Jimmy had not been feeling well and was unable to make the trip to Atlanta to attend Tim’s induction ceremony. Five minutes before the ceremony began; Tim was paged to the phone to hear devastating news. The call was from his younger brother Ric who had driven to his dad’s home to check on him to find that Jimmy had died of a heart attack.
Unfortunately, Jimmy did not live to see his biggest honor to date, his induction into “The Georgia Music Hall of Fame” in 2000. The Georgy award represents the highest honor for performing arts that the State of Georgia can bestow on its natives. Jimmy had often watched the award show and commented “it would be great to make it in there, that’s the big one”. Jimmy would have been thrilled to know that his home state would present him with such a great honor. Most recently, in 2001 Jimmy was inducted into the “Texas International Country Music Hall of Fame”.
In 2004 The release of " The Legendary Guitar of "Little" Jimmy Dempsey box set Produced by his son Tim Dempsey on his label Legends Records continues the legacy of one of music’s finest musicians and one of life’s greatest stories. I hope you have enjoyed this abbreviated trip through a remarkable music career by a remarkable man. There is so much more to Jimmy's story and you can share in his entire remarkable life in several upcoming projects including other releases of his remarkable career. There is also a planned book of Jimmy's life story and talk of a possible documentary or movie.