Born Derek Dickerson on June 2, 1968, in Columbia, MO. Addresses: Record company--Ecco-Fonic/Major Label Records, P.O. Box 304, Hollywood, CA 90078, phone: (818) 558-3660, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Booking--Hello Booking, 2500 University Ave., Suite C-8, St. Paul, MN 55114, phone: (651) 647-4464, e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Website--Deke Dickerson Official Website: http://www.dekedickerson.com.
Equal parts sincere archivist and irreverent innovator, Deke Dickerson's consistently engaging body of work embraces the best aspects of early rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, honky-tonk, western swing, blues, and novelty. A skilled singer-songwriter with an impressive knack for recasting old tunes, Dickerson imbues his recordings with considerable production sense, droll humor, and doubleneck-guitar know-how to spare. Moreover, after honing his skill with a variety of bands, he has emerged as one of his genre's finest interpreters.
Born Derek Dickerson on June 2, 1968, in Columbia, Missouri, the artist received his first guitar at age 13. His father's old Bill Haley and Elvis Presley records helped him learn the basics of three-chord rock 'n' roll. He also displayed some ability on the tenor saxophone, playing the instrument in his high school band. By the time he was 14, the guitar-wielding youngster was playing in a local heavy metal band because, as he jokingly told Contemporary Musicians, "[Y]ou had to have a heavy metal band in Central Missouri."
An aficionado of garage sales and thrift stores, Dickerson fed his musical obsessions with obscure and inexpensive rockabilly, country, surf, and garage-rock finds. "Y'know, when I was growing up the only accepted guitar styles were like Led Zeppelin, that sort of thing, and I really wasn't into that," remembers Dickerson. "So, I started finding these Buddy Merrill records at these garage sales, Les Paul, guys like that. I found Two Guitars-Country Style by Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant when I was fifteen. That record changed my life, man. It was unlike anything I had heard up to that point." Although privately entranced by these archival finds, Dickerson's public focus at that time was the surf 'n' turf sounds of his first nationally known band, Untamed Youth.
Recorded for Norton Records
At age 17 Dickerson and bass player Steve Mace formed the Untamed Youth, a garage-rock combo that featured 1960-style Farfisa organ and surf licks on a zany mix of original songs about girls and hot rods along with restyled rockabilly obscurities. Their energetic, slob-comedy approach provided the perfect backdrop to Dickerson's inventive guitar playing which, like Junior Brown's work, embraced country twang, reverb, and touches of psychedelia.
Dickerson recalls the events surrounding the bands signing with the collector-oriented New York-based label Norton Records. "There was one place to play in our hometown--the Blue Note club, which is still the best club in the Midwest. After we did a few shows there, opening up for several touring groups--Paladins, Lyres, etc.--I leaned on Billy [Miller] and Miriam [Linna] from Norton Records to book us a tour to New York City. So they booked three shows and we drove out there with my dad chaperoning! When Billy and Miriam saw us play, they immediately wanted us to sign with Norton Records. They were very encouraging and wanted us to record as soon as possible."
With Mace and Dickerson anchoring an ever-changing lineup, Untamed Youth fit perfectly into a Norton Records roster that included the likes of rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins, Linna and Miller's own group the A-Bones, King Unsneiwicz & the Unsneiwicztones, and Southern punk rockers the Flat Duo Jets. On the road constantly playing to a small but loyal cult, the band experienced some good times. "We lived like beggars," laughs Dickerson, "but that was the most fun I've had in my entire life. We toured all over the country in a '68 Oldsmobile hearse, slept on people's floors when that sort of thing was still exciting, ate Spaghettio's out of a can day after day, and expected that any day now our big break would come. Of course that wasn't going to happen for a surf band from Missouri in the late 80s."
By 1991 Mace and Dickerson had a decision to make--either go to California to make a play for the big time or go to college. They chose California. According to Dickerson, the band never really got off the ground on the West Coast and officially ended in 1993, although Untamed Youth occasionally reunites for special shows and recordings.
Cofounded the Dave & Deke Combo
While still with Untamed Youth, Dickerson started a rockabilly side project with the multitalented Dave Stuckey. Officially changing his stage name from Derek to Deke--after Elvis Presley's character in the 1956 film Loving You--they were christened the Dave & Deke Combo. "We started playing in May or June of 1991 and it took off immediately, because L.A. has always had such a good rockabilly scene," Dickerson recalled. "In the beginning, we both wanted to do a mix of rockabilly, rock & roll, and hillbilly stuff, and we both loved the Homer & Jethro type country humor. Our 'schtick' was that I was the idiot, he was the straight man. In the meantime, Stuckey was playing drums for the Untamed Youth as well."
Dave & Deke's accent on the hillbilly side of rockabilly put them ahead of the roots music curve and they developed solid pockets of fans in America and England. Following the lead of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys and legendary 1950s rockabilly Ronnie Dawson, they signed a one-shot recording deal with Barney Koumis' No Hit label in England. Their full-length debut, Moonshine Melodies, cost a mere $400 to produce. Dickerson himself considers their second LP for Heydey, the eclectic jumping Hollywood Barndance, to be the duo's most enduring musical achievement.
It was during his stint with Stuckey that Dickerson found his instrumental trademark, the double-necked guitar--which had been popularized by two of his idols from the 1950s, country ace Joe Maphis and Larry Collins of the Collins Kids. "Real early on in the Dave & Deke Combo, we played in Bakersfield. The next day we went to a pawnshop and there was this really funky Mosrite doubleneck that was probably put together with spare parts after they went out of business--it was obviously not a pedigreed doubleneck. But, it was very hip and the guy only wanted three hundred bucks for it. So I got it and about two weeks later I found out I couldn't play any gigs without it! People would get disappointed or even angry if I showed up without this doublenecked guitar."
The Dave & Deke Combo dissolved via a classic example of creative differences. Stuckey wanted to phase rock 'n' roll out of their act in favor of hardcore western swing. Dickerson, who liked mixing up his sounds, did not. "I know the common consensus has been that if I had stayed in the band we would have accomplished a lot more," Dickerson reflects today, "but the truth is that we were not popular when the band was together. We only became popular after the band broke up. If we had stayed together we would have imploded and it would have been much uglier."
Side Projects Keep Dickerson Busy
Dickerson has always had some creative project or side band cooking. Even while he was working with Dave & Deke Combo, he played in offbeat little combo called the Go-Nuts. With tongue firmly in cheek, the artist detailed the group's wacky genesis: "After the Untamed Youth broke up, my friend Mel Bergmann from the Phantom Surfers and I started brainstorming on a fun side project. We decided that since we had played surf music, rockabilly, hillbilly, and received no money and no fame, we should do a band that was the exact opposite of every band we had ever done. First off, every band we had ever done focused on music. This band would focus on gimmicks. Secondly, every band we had ever done played good music; this new band would play the worst kind of 'rock' music we could pull off. After coming to those conclusions, we decided that A.) It should be a band of superhero characters, B.) All the songs should be about snack food, C.) We should have gorillas as part of the act, and D.) We should throw snacks at the audience using high-powered air cannons. Voila! The Go-Nuts were born." Giving themselves the in-group identities the Donut Prince, Kap'n Kornnut, the Donut Hole, and the Korn Dogg, the Go-Nuts have dubbed their musical genre "snak-rock."
Another of Dickerson's pet projects is his home-studio-based Ecco-Fonic label. Named for the first commercially available tape-echo unit for guitar, the imprint was initially conceived to cut instrumental singles. It has issued material by High Noon's Sean Mencher, the Country Cabin Boys, T.K.'s Smith Ranch Boys, Billy Zoom, and the Japanese rockabilly band the Krazy Kats. Dickerson has also produced such acts as The Raging Teens, Biller & Wakefield, and the Hotshots. "Ecco-Fonic" seemed such an appropriate tag for Dickerson's music, that he eventually changed the name of his post-Dave Stuckey group from the Dekes of Hazzard to Deke Dickerson & the Ecco-Fonics.
Went Solo at Hightone
Dickerson's artistic focus sharpened once he signed with the Oakland-based Hightone label in 1998. An important contributor to Dickerson's solo recordings is vintage equipment guru/producer Mark Neill, whose Danelectro six-string bass can often be heard. Employing such crack roots players as boogie pianist Carl Sonny Leyland, versatile guitar and bassman Billy Horton, steel player Jeremy Wakefield, and western guitar virtuoso Dave Leroy Biller, Neill and Dickerson have crafted albums that not only rock and swing, but convey a sense of easy mastery and mischief.
Firmly connected to his fringe appeal/record-collecting audience, Dickerson's first album, Number One Hit Record! boasts guest appearances from Joey D'Ambrosio-Bill Haley & the Comets' original saxophone player, Claude Trenier from the legendary R&B pioneer group the Treniers, and his doublenecked guitar-playing idol Larry Collins. Whether burning through remakes of Freddie Hart's "Snatch It & Grab It," swinging through his own "Can't See the Forrest for the Trees," or groping at the stratosphere with the instrumental "Guitar in Orbit Part 37," the singer-songwriter played with more attitude, taste, and verve than any of his labelmates.
His second Hightone release, More Million Sellers, not only boasts the last recording by blues legend Hadda Brooks ("You're My Cadillac"), but displays a puckish sense of humor with its clever use of legendary midget comedian Billy Barty and Beverly Hillbillies theme vocalist Jerry Scoggins. Wonderfully droll faux-radio drop-ins and a Les Paul/Mary Ford-inspired ghost track heighten the impact of his rockabilly, honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, and caffeinated tropical mood music.
Rhythm Rhyme and Truth was Dickerson's departure album. A divorce and the onset of Type 1 diabetes had sobered his mood considerably, producing his most compelling artistic statement thus far. Eschewing the comedic asides of his earlier LPs, he allowed his existential angst to bleed into his by-now-standard roots music mix. Record collectors were treated to some choice backup vocals by 1950s doo-wop group the Calvanes. But the true show came via Dickerson's pleading, sometimes desperate renditions of "Where to Aim" and "Where Am I Going."
None of Dickerson's Hightone releases were major sellers by modern industry standards, but high critical praise did translate into respectable sales and steady bookings. More importantly, a few of his songs have made onto the soundtracks of such films as Election; Joe, Ron, and George; and Alien Avengers. Yet with Hightone suffering the same economic woes that laid low the mainstream industry, Dickerson decided to release 2003's 3-Dimensions! on his own Major Label--another example of his humor-inspired wish fulfillment. This time around, Dickerson fulfilled a lifelong dream of hiring legendary drummer Earl Palmer, who played on all of Fats Domino's, Little Richard's, and Lloyd Price's 1950s hits. The R&B jumper "Top of the Line," country double-entendre of "Pinball Boogie," and manic Johnny Burnette Trio-influenced "Wear out the Soles of My Shoes," demonstrate that Dickerson had lost none of his rock zest or comedic instincts. However, the transformation of Rodney Scott's "Bitter Tears" from a standard rock ballad to a cathartic piece of rockabilly noir proved a haunting innovation. Although Dickerson dreams of recording with a "nice budget," such creatively conceived, authoritatively executed work proves that great music can be made on the cheap, and that this artist's best days are yet to come.
by Ken Burke
Deke Dickerson's Career
Played full-time with surf 'n' turf band Untamed Youth, 1984-93; joined with Dave Stuckey to form the Dave & Deke Combo 1991-96; co-founded the snak-rock group the Go-Nuts, 1993; started the Ecco-Fonic label, 1994; signed with Hightone Records 1998-2000; released 3-Dimensions! on his own Major Label, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Number One Hit Record! Hightone, 1998.
- More Million Sellers Hightone, 1999.
- Rhythm Rhyme and Truth Hightone, 2000.
- This is Ecco-Fonic Eccofonic Records, 2001.
- 3-Dimensions! Major Label, 2003.
- With the Dave & Deke Combo
- Moonshine Melodies No Hit, 1993.
- Hollywood Barn Dance Heyday, 1996.
- With the Go-Nuts
- World's Greatest Super Hero Snak Rock & Gorilla Entertainment Revue Planet Pimp, 1997.
- Dunk and Cover Look Out, 2000.
- With Untamed Youth
- Some Kinda Fun Norton, 1988.
- More Gone Gassers Norton, 1990.
- Sophisticated International Playboys Norton, 1995.
- Untamed Melodies Norton, 1996.
- An Invitation to Planet Mace Estrus, 1997.
- Youth Gone Wild! Norton, 1998.
- Major Chaos! Double Crown, 2002.
- Goodman, David, Modern Twang-An Alternative Country Music Guide & Directory, Dowling Press, 1999.
- Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors, MusicHound Country: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1997.
- Blue Suede News Number 63, 2003.
- Country Standard Time, January/February 2003.
- Original Cool, Summer 1998.
- "Deke Dickerson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 13, 2003).
- Deke Dickerson Official Website, http://www.dekedickerson.com (August 8, 2003).
- Additional information was obtained from the author's own interviews with Dickerson for Blue Suede News, Country Standard Time, Original Cool, and e-mails from the artist.