Long-term hospitalisation is a dread of most people but it can be particularly tough on professional musicians, who are self-employed, after all. Northumberland-born slide-guitarist/singer/songwriter, Johnny Dickinson is currently the victim of a particularly pernicious condition which has seen him spend the last eight weeks (at time of writing) in an intensive care unit in a Newcastle hospital.
At first, it was thought to be Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a distressing illness which compromises the body’s natural immune defences and attacks the peripheral nervous system. At its worst, it can render the patient immobile and can require months of highly-skilled treatment and subsequent physiotherapy. The initial diagnosis has recently changed to a related and a similarly little-known condition – which presents the same symptoms – called CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy). It is currently challenging the hospital’s specialists not least because John’s pre-existing lymphoma, diagnosed a couple of years ago, is compounding the task.
At this point, a brief summary of Johnny’s career to date would probably be helpful. Johnny Dickinson, now in his forties, has performed music all of his adult life and he has a seriously eclectic outlook ranging across blues, country, folk, Western swing, gospel, reggae and beyond. Initially, however, he fronted a hotly-tipped (by Kerrang magazine) rock outfit called Splitcrow and later worked in London with the bluegrass-influenced Moonshine Boys (and occasional Asleep At The Wheel references) while accommodating a day job. While still in London, he was a founder member of multi-award winning Paul Lamb & the Kingsnakes (with fellow Northumbrians Paul Lamb and John Whitehill). On his subsequent return to native turf, he tore-up his own corner of north-east England with the wildly experimental Hillbillies From Outer Space – a psychedelic roots band, no less. About ten years ago, he decided to try his hand at a solo career – majoring in acoustic guitar with occasional reversion to electric – and it proved to be an inspired move. His debut album, Castles & Old Kings, won him accolades for his deft balance of folk and blues, all underpinned by his shimmering slide-guitar work and a full-ranged vocal dexterity which gifted him the freedom to roam at will. The guitar-style was the product of years of poring over the works of country-blues originals like Blind Willie Johnson, Fred McDowell, Tampa Red, Robert Johnson and so on. Blending a long-time affinity with the music of highland pipe-bands he was able to fashion a Celtic-blues hybrid. Blues, indisputably, is at the very core of his work.
He was quickly identified as a wanted man by the BBC Radio 2 specialist programmes, recording sets for national broadcast for Mike Harding (Folk and Roots), Paul Jones (Blues) and the more mainstream Mark Radcliffe. He was able to dip into his deep reservoir of songs – originals and covers – to satisfy them all. The folk elements of his work, for example, saw him nominated for subsequent years in the BBC Folk Awards, playing many of the leading folk-festivals (at Cambridge he appeared on all three stages and recorded for the BBC TV highlights show) and his album, English Summer, was folk album of the month in Mojo magazine.
He toured with other musical mavericks like Kelly Joe Phelps and John Martyn and expanded into continental Europe for gigs with Jan Akkerman, Tommy Emmanuel, John Renbourn, Thom Bresh (virtuoso son of Merle Travis) all of whom were, by any yardstick, top-drawer company. Johnny also recorded a live DVD and subsequently offered a live CD – Sketches From The Road – which provided a typically expansive sample of his art. He also reprised a partnership with harmonica virtuoso, Paul Lamb, and the pair toured Europe as an acoustic duo in the style of their mentors, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. There are clips galore on You Tube of Johnny playing with any number of highly-respected pickers but he has, aside from a highly-developed guitar sound, a voice the like of which none of the others possesses. At his shows Willie Dixon’s Same Thing or Fred McDowell’s I Wish I Was In Heaven sits comfortably alongside The Gypsy Laddie or John Hardy and in that respect Johnny was no different to, say, Alvin Youngblood Hart. It may not all be blues but blues informs most of his work. His last studio album, Hilo Town, has more than a passing nod to Western swing.
The news of Johnny Dickinson’s illness galvanised the musical fraternity, especially in his native corner of the UK. As a result, a download -only album is now available from www.johnnydickinson.net . The twelve tracks include a couple of live cuts from Johnny (one with Tommy Emmanuel, one solo) and a donated track each from fellow guitarists, Joscho Stephan, Tony McManus, Thom Bresh, Wizz Jones, John Renbourn, Aziz Ibrahim, Jennifer Batten (long-time guitarist for Michael Jackson), Clive Carroll, Jan Akkerman and John Smith. The whole album can be downloaded in double-quick time for only £5.
Bearing in mind that Johnny’s wife (and family of four children) has a daily seventy-mile round-trip from the family home in Northumberland to Newcastle – and all of the costs that incurs – musician friends have put together a benefit show at Newcastle’s Cluny on Saturday, 18th August to help meet the unforeseen additional expenses. A full line-up with running times, ticket arrangements etc will follow nearer the event and will appear on the Cluny website www.thecluny.com. Johnny Dickinson’s own website is at www.mazzycranks.com/johhny and it has all of the usual facilities like albums, videos, message section and biography.