"The poet laureate of the blues"
Blues music, in all its permutations, seems to be as popular as ever. Robert Cray, Sonny Landreth, Rory Block, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks, Dr. John, North Mississippi All Stars, Jimmie Vaughn and Janiva Magness, among many other active players, continue to make quality music and put on inspiring shows.
But whose career can compare to what Willie Dixon accomplished in the 1950s and early ’60s? No one since has created such a canon of songs that have become blues standards. Classics like “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “You Shook Me,” “Back Door Man,” “Seventh Son,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” I Ain’t Superstitious,” Little Red Rooster,” Spoonful,” “Built For Comfort,” “You Need Love,” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You” continue to be performed and recorded decades later. Not only did Dixon write so many enduring songs, he was a touring musician, producer, arranger and session player. Willie’s contributions, often unheralded, were as important and influential as anyone’s.
Willie Dixon’s life itself is fodder for a blues song. He was born in the port city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the seventh child of 14 in an impoverished family. As a teenager, Willie served time on a Mississippi prison farm, gaining exposure to blues forms. Like many of his contemporaries, he escaped the depressed and racially oppressive South, landing in Chicago. Dixon’s 250 pounds and six-and-a-half-foot stature led him to boxing, advancing to the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship in the mid-1930s. His pugilistic career was curtailed after a money dispute with his manager and subsequent suspension imposed by the boxing commissioner.
Through a number of connections and influences, Willie became part of the late ’30s Chicago scene as a hustling musician. He hawked sheet music on the street, worked clubs for pass-the-hat pay and played the city’s famed Maxwell Street markets. Dixon’s recording career commenced in 1940, singing and playing bass for the Five Breezes. The group ended after Willie was jailed for refusing his military induction. Citing his status as a conscientious objector, Dixon finally gained freedom after a year’s worth of legal wrangling. His later ’40s group, the Big Three Trio, worked in Dixon originals and featured Ink Spots-type harmonies not previously heard in blues.
Playing one of the many area jam sessions, Dixon was spotted by Phil and Leonard Chess, a couple of Polish immigrants hoping to get a record company off the ground. As a solid bass player with studio experience, he was just what they needed. Into the 1950s, Dixon recorded for Chess Records but, more importantly, other artists on the label picked up on his compositions. Little Walter cut “My Babe” and “Mellow Down Easy,” Muddy Waters took on “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and Willie Mabon started his career with “Seventh Son.”
Dixon was a constant force on upright bass as well, playing on most of the 1950s Chess Records sessions. And not just their blues artists like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells and Koko Taylor. He can be heard on such influential early rockers as Bo Diddlley’s “Bo Diddley” and “Mona” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Reelin’ And Rockin’,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Johnny B. Goode,” and “Back In The U.S.A.” As the electric bass guitar took hold in the early ’60s, Dixon assumed more supervisory session duties.
Around 1957, Willie Dixon was lured from Chess to help the fledging Chicago label Cobra. His multiple skills were immediately evident in Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You, Baby,” helping establish the new company. The ever-thorny issue of money, this time with Cobra, prompted Dixon’s return to Chess. He had lost none of his touch though, resulting in another flurry of successful compositions and sessions for the label.
Dixon even had a role in fostering England’s interest in blues. He was the booker and bandleader for a number of early ’60s American Folk Blues festivals touring Europe. British bands like the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds were eager students, incorporating R&B in their early works. Many of the British Invasion groups were responsible for bringing black blues to American white suburbia. Ironically, that Invasion and the accompanying cultural changes of the mid-’60s, made the Chess music model decreasingly relevant. Psychedelic blues-rock was more in vogue with groups like Cream who were, paradoxically, reworking Dixon’s classic compositions. Former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin were no strangers to his songbook.
Dixon cut an album with nine of his best-known tunes in 1970, immodestly—but accurately—titled "I Am The Blues." This helped remind a new audience that he was more than a songwriting credit name. Despite health issues stemming from his long-term diabetes, Dixon toured throughout the 1970s and into the next decade, also sporadically releasing albums.
Willie Dixon died from heart failure in early 1992 at age 76. In 1994, he was deservedly inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in the Early Influences (pre-rock) category. Dixon remains a singular figure in the blues-rock realm, with no one in the last 50 years coming close to equaling his songwriting legacy.
Recommended reading: "I Am The Blues - The Willie Dixon Story" by Willie Dixon with Don Snowden