By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Grand Ole Opry star "Little Jimmy" Dickens, the longest-running cast member of country music's most venerable venue, died on Friday at the age of 94, the Opry said.
Dickens, a pint-sized comical performer measuring just 4-foot-11 inches, died of cardiac arrest in a Nashville area hospital after he suffered a stroke on Christmas Day.
He joined the Opry in 1948 and last performed on its stage on Dec. 20, the day after his 94th birthday, according to Opry spokeswoman Jessie Schmidt.
Even in his nineties, Dickens remained committed to his duties at the Nashville institution, where his big voice and larger-than-life personality made him a fan favorite.
"I look forward from one weekend to another to get back out on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and try to entertain people who have come from miles and miles and state to state to be entertained with country music," he said recently, according to the Opry.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983 and inspired some of today's prominent country stars, such as Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood.
Friends including Hank Williams knew him as "Tater" – a nickname that came from early hit "Take An Old Cold Tater (and Wait)."
Among Dickens's other classics are "Country Boy," "Out Behind the Barn," and "May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose."
In addition to being a country star, he also took a shot at rockabilly when that genre began in the 1950s, singing songs such as "Salty Boogie," "Blackeyed Joe's," and "(I Got) A Hole in My Pocket."
Dickens began his career on the radio, first appearing on the air in his home state of West Virginia, and then hosting radio shows in diverse locales, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The late Roy Acuff, one of the biggest-ever stars of the Opry, first heard Dickens in 1947 in Cincinnati, and brought him to the attention of the Grand Ole Opry and Columbia Records.
Dickens was best-known for the novelty songs, which largely overshadowed his skills as a country balladeer on such songs as "I’ve Just Got to See You Once More" and "My Heart’s Bouquet."
He is survived by wife Mona Dickens and two daughters. Funeral arrangements were incomplete, but the Opry said there will be both a public visitation and public service.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Ken Wills)