He's had hit songs in the '50s '60s, 70s, '80s and '90s. He's considered to be one of Country music's most prolific song writers of all time. His hits include "Patches", "I Saw Linda Yesterday" and "Laurie" to name just a few. Artists like Elvis, George Jones, Kenny Rogers, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Taylor, Brenda Lee, Reba McIntyre, Anne Murray and the list goes on and on, have all covered his songs. In 1995 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame. We are of course talking about the one, the only, Mr. Dickey Lee.
Q - How did you develop your song writing talent. Not every singer or musician can do what you do. Where did this skill come from?
A - Well, I don't know. I guess it started in junior high school. I remember there was a guy in our high school who was kind of Mr. Everything. He would play his guitar and sing every Friday at a lot of our assemblies. I just kind of wanted to emulate him. He had all the girls. He was a big star on the football team and I thought that's what I want to do. I'm gonna play football and learn to play guitar.
Q - I'm sure a lot guys had that same idea. But still, there has to be something else going on, right?
A - Well, yeah. Once I kind of listened to that guy and heard what he did, it really hit me. I thought boy, I really want to do that. Around the seventh grade I started to try and write songs. There were some pretty bad ones, but I just loved it. I even auditioned for a couple of Country bands back then, which I didn't make because I couldn't play that good. I think I had a dream. I saw myself doing this and just kept working away at it. I would get these song magazines and copy 'em and try to figure out how do these people write songs? What do they do? I was always listening to the radio back then. I bought a lot of records and I would learn the songs off the record and I don't know. I kept working away at it. I was also lucky enough to have some people in the business that were very successful that backed me up when I started off. I don't know if you're familiar with the name Jack Clement.
Q - He was a producer.
A - Yeah, he was a producer. He died a couple of years ago. He produced like Johnny Cash, a lot of big artists. He was a producer at Sun Records. He worked for Sam Phillips and that's where I first met him. In fact, when I was in school I had a little record out in Memphis that did really well and Sun signed me. So, I really got started on Sun Records. I don't know the secret. I think it's a feel thing. I know people are always trying to tell you how to write songs and I'm not sure people can tell you how to write songs. They can give you some tips on how to go about the craft, but I just think it's a feel thing. I would write things and finally it got to the point where I thought, okay, do I really like what I'm writing here? If I don't like it, probably there are not going to be a lot of other people who like it either. I would just write things. They always kidded me, even today. I'm still re-writing songs I wrote twenty years ago that were hit records (laughs) trying to make 'em better. But I really worked at it. I had a love for it and I worked my tail off trying to do it right.
Q - Some song writers get up in the morning and go to an office to write. Other guys wait for inspiration. Where do you fit in this equation?
A - I was a nine to five guy. I'd go into the office and sometimes I'd sit there and not make a sound all day. I think just that thinking in your subconscious mind, you might be in there a few days and nothing happens, but all of a sudden one day you start getting these ideas. I think they came from that time when you felt nothing was going on, but your subconscious was really hard at work. I've written with friends of mine and we've done the same thing. We'd sit and look at each other all day long. But that was the way I did it. I know there are some guys, like you say. They just won't do anything until they get this great idea. I think if I waited around for great ideas, I don't think they would have ever come. I had to work at 'em. Somebody said one time, the song writing muse is not going to be around very often, but if you're working at it really hard, he'll come in to see you every once in a while.
Q - Was this an office you'd go into with a secretary and a phone ringing?
A - Yeah, we had a publishing company and there were a lot of writers. It was the Welk Music Group. You had secretaries and you had all these writer's rooms. So, it was like a little business. We had song pluggers. You'd write stuff, demo it and pitch it to different artists.
Q - When you were starting off, your father told you, you should take your guitar and throw it in the Mississippi River.
A - (laughs) I grew up on a farm.
Q - As bad as that story sounds, I can top it!
A - Oh, yeah?
Q - I have two brothers who are musicians and my father told them if they were stealing hubcaps they'd make more money.
A - (laughs)
Q - As funny as that may sound, you have two sons who are trying to make an honest buck and you tell them to go out and steal hubcaps?
A - I think back then it was just the time. Hollywood and movie stars and singing stars was just a pipe dream I think they felt. I think they just felt they were just pretty much hard working, honest people and they see their kids doing that and they think you're throwing your life away. Once I started getting some success, they all felt different about me. (laughs) I had a friend in Germany who was a bass player. His father just hated what he was doing. He arrived at some success. His father lived in Chicago and he went to visit him one time and he took him to this club. The father just didn't like music. He'd never been anywhere. He took him to this club and there was some fantastic Blues singer there. His father looked at him after he was done and said, "I think I know what you're talking about now." I thought that was kind of cool.
Q - Would Dewey Phillips be the guy who gave you your first break?
A - Yeah, exactly. In fact, when I was still in high school, Dewey had a really hot radio show called Red, Hot And Blue. It was on from nine until twelve every night. Every kid in Memphis I think listened to him. I went up to his show one night. It was one the mezzanine floor of a hotel in Memphis. People would go up there and hang out and try to meet him. I got to meet him one night and I asked him if he would listen to a couple of songs and he said, to my surprise, "Yes." I played a couple of songs for him and he said, "Those are pretty good. You got a band?" I said, "No." He said, "Why don't you put a band together and work those songs up and come back." So, to make a long story short, we did and he eventually recorded these two songs in the radio studio and got me a record deal with a little record company called Tampa. The record was "Dream Boy" and the other side was "Stay True Baby". It was at the same time Elvis had "All Shook Up" I think.
Q - When you were approached by Dewey Phillips, was this before or after he played Elvis' "That's All Right Mama"?
A - This was after. Elvis was hot. This was about a year after Dewey played "That's All Right Mama". But anyway, he put the record out and it followed Elvis' record up in the local charts all the way up to number two. Elvis was number one. I could never pass him. That's the thing that got me started and that's the record that got me on Sun Records. We had a couple of records over there.
Q - I'm kind of familiar with a lot of the independent labels, but I've never heard of Tampa Records.
A - Well, you know what? I'd never heard of it either.
Q - Who else was on the label?
A - I know they had some other artists, but I don't know of any of 'em. I couldn't tell you any artist that recorded on that label. It was out of Tampa, Florida. This guy was just a little, independent record label down there. I don't think they had any real success. If they did, I'm not aware of it.
Q - Did Sun Records do enough for you in the way of promotion?
A - Not really. I had two, three records on Sun over about a two year period. They were all local hits, but as far as national hits, they never took off. Sam Phillips later told me, "I really thought you had something, but I was a one-man operation. I didn't have time to do anything for you. I was working on Elvis. I was working on Jerry Lee Lewis. I was working on Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. I didn't have time to fool with you. You sounded like one of those damn Rock 'n' Roll, Philadelphia teenage idols to me." He was kind of Southern Soul. I thought that was kind of a left-handed compliment because we were great friends up until his death. His two sons are still very close friends of mine. I've often said being on Sun Records and not even having a legitimate hit is better than being on Sun Records and having a hit because people, especially all over Europe, they worship Sun Records. If you're on that label, you're a star! They'll book you if you're on that label. It's just amazing the magic that that label possessed.
Q - How much road work did you do behind the records?
A - I was in school when I was on Sun. I would do weekend shows at different high schools and colleges around the mid-South. That was kind of about it.
Q - What did your classmates say to you?
A - It was pretty cool, but actually my record deal didn't come through until I was a senior. I was actually out of high school and was going into college. I went to Memphis State, which is the University Of Memphis today. That's when my record actually came out, when I was in college. But it's the same thing. It was really neat. I had a lot of fun. I created a lot of problems because Memphis had some really great basketball. One of the guys on the freshman basketball team was on scholarship. He played guitar. We started playing around and he started playing in my band and he actually gave up his scholarship. So, the basketball coach was not happy with me. We had a lot of fun and made some pretty good money on weekends.
Q - In your travels, did you ever meet Buddy Holly?
A - No. I never met Buddy Holly. The closest I got to Buddy Holly was Johnny Preston I guess. There was a guy named Bill Holly that actually became my manager and publisher later. He worked with Buddy Holly for just a little while. He was also working with Johnny Preston and The Big Bopper. That was as close as I came to Buddy Holly, but I've actually played a lot of shows with The Crickets. Those guys that played with Buddy are good friends of mine today.
Q - In 1957, Elvis invited you to Graceland. Elvis' mother was alive then, wasn't she?
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you meet her?
A - I sure did. I went out there a few times. We (Elvis and I) went to some movies together. I remember one night we were leaving. There was about four or five guys. Elvis had rented this movie theatre and we were getting ready to go. I remember his mother saying, "Okay Elvis, now you all be good. You hear me?" (laughs) He really worshipped his mother.
Q - You're telling me he rented a movie theatre?
A - Yeah. He rented a movie theatre just for some of his friends. There might have been fifteen of us there.
Q - What did you think of Elvis?
A - Oh, I was crazy about him. When I first met him, my band, we had done a dance out at a place called The Rainbow Terrace Room. In fact, Dewey and this other disc jockey, Wink Martindale, put this dance on with my band. We just had a mob out there and when I was leaving this guy comes up to me and says, "Elvis wants to meet you." I said, "What are you talking about?" Elvis was sitting out in his car by the curb. He brought me over there and he said, "Hey, I really like your record. I think you're gonna do really well." He invited me out to his house. Instead of going home, I went out to his house that night. I remember he had an ice-cream bar that he had down in his den. He made me a vanilla milk shake. I never will forget it. He was really good to me. We never became great, personal friends, but we became good acquaintances. He gave me a lot of encouragement and I really appreciated it.
Q - He must've been really happy and upbeat then.
A - Oh, yeah. It was right around "Heartbreak Hotel". He'd just gone to RCA. He might've been there a year or so. He was really "hot."
Q - What a nice story that is!
A - You're not kidding. My best friend today is Alan Reynolds. He played in my original band. He wound up producing all the Garth Brooks hits. We just sit around sometimes, lunch or dinner and think gosh, we're the most blessed, luckiest guys in the world for what all we've done and been through. It's just been a real trip . I can't believe I'm still doing it at my age (78). I thought I'd be dead by now.
Q - But you're a clean living guy, aren't you? You never got into the bad habits that so many other people got into?
A - No. I never really did. I think one of the reasons for that is I never smoked. I played sports in school and I went up to Memphis on a boxing scholarship. I was not a great athlete, so I did everything I could to be as good of an athlete as I could be. I didn't drink. I didn't do anything except play sports and play my guitar.
Q - What inspiration did you get out of playing football? Discipline?
A - Yeah. Definitely discipline. It was tough. It was hard. Even boxing is probably tougher than that really.
Q - You must've been pretty good with your fists then to get a boxing scholarship?
A - Well, I was in the Golden Gloves when I was in school. My father was a Golden Gloves champion and he taught me a lot. I went out for the boxing team at Memphis and made it. We had two coaches and one of 'em was one of the football coaches. Another guy was a former Middle-weight, professional Middle-weight. He had a pretty successful career. His name was Shelton Harrison.
Q - How'd you do in boxing in college?
A - I did pretty good. I only boxed for two years and then I gave it up because the music thing started getting so busy that I had to just give it up. I didn't have a real problem giving it up because music was a lot more fun than boxing was really.
Q - What division were you boxing in?
A - I was a Welter-weight. I'm left handed and I think that was to my advantage because there wasn't a lot of left-handed boxers around at the time. I only fought right-handed boxers. Most boxers I fought never fought a left-handed boxer. I think that was responsible for part of my success.
Q - Dickey, why don't good songs get recorded anymore? What's going on?
A - Well, I don't know. I'm certainly not bitter. I sure had my day in the my era and had a lot of great success and fun. I went to a BMI Awards dinner back in October (2014) where they gave awards for the Top 50 most played songs of the year. They have an award also called an Icon Award, presented to some artist. They presented it this year to Vince Gill. They didn't make the presentation until they'd given forty-seven of 'em out, so they kind of held out until the last part. When Vince came up and different artists were singing some of his songs, I thought wow! This is the first time I've heard a real melody tonight! I don't say that in bitterness. The culture has changed. Those first forty-seven songs sounded like one long Rock 'n' Roll soundtrack.
Q - Exactly. I don't hear songs with a melody and clever lyrics anymore.
A - I've had the same publisher for years. I'm doing my own thing now, but I went in to see my publisher. This was about a year ago. I've got such a big catalog. He sat down and I just played through some songs that had never been recorded or some that I wanted to do over again. He said, "Dick, you know what your problem is today?" I said, "I didn't know I had a problem." He said, "These songs are over-written. They're too well crafted. Kids today get so much information thrown at 'em, they can't even take it all in. Most of it is through one ear, out the other before they even know what they're listening to. Everything's been just dumb down and simplified." I thought I hate to hear something like that. A lot of these songs today, I couldn't write 'em. I don't get it. I wouldn't care about writing 'em.