“I am the blues” – Willie Dixon
The recent death of Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson has brought up the august name of Willie Dixon, a name that deserves full attention.
If Willie Dixon wasn’t the literal embodiment of the blues — he lived too long and was too well fed to be the personification of deprivation and pain that, say, Robert Johnson was — then it is safe to say that the blues in its modern form wouldn’t exist without Dixon’s contributions.
Through his work as session bass player, arranger, producer and composer for blues legends Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor and dozens of others at the Chess and Cobra labels in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dixon was the first bluesman to understand and utilize modern recording practices and techniques in the service of the blues.
He also served as the link between the blues and rock ‘n’ roll communities through his work with Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry at Chess; and when his songs were recorded by the Rolling Stones (“Little Red Rooster”), Animals (“I Got To Find My Baby”), Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart (“I Ain’t Superstitious”), Cream (“Spoonful”), Led Zeppelin (“Bring It On Home”), The Doors (“Back Door Man”), even Oingo Boingo (“Violent Love”).
Willie Dixon was born July 1, 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the seventh of 14 children. “The seventh Son is kind of a historical idea..The world has made a pattern out of this seven as a lucky number. Most people think the seventh child has the extra wisdom and knowledge to inflence other people,” Dixon wrote in his autobiography, I Am the Blues.
Dixon’s mother Daisy ran a restaurant and encouraged reading, especially the Bible. She had a knack for speaking in rhyme that Willie picked up at an early age. As a teen Dixon sang bass with the Union Jubilee Singers, a gospel quartet that had a weekly 15-minute radio broadcast.
Dixon, a large lad who grew to be an even larger man (at one point reaching 380 pounds), was also interested in boxing. Dixon moved to Chicago in 1936 and in 1937 he was the novice Illinois State Golden Gloves heavyweight champion. He fought four professional fights and sparred with Joe Louis before his career ended with a scuffle in the boxing commissioner’s office.
Dixon turned to music in earnest, playing bass with guitarist Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston and forming the Five Breezes. The group played around Chicago and recorded for Bluebird.
In 1941 Dixon was arrested for refusing military service as a conscientious objector. “I explained to them in several court cases, ’Why should I go to work to fight to save somebody that’s killing me and my people?’” Dixon was in prison on-and-off for about a year and then formed a new group, the Four Jumps of Jive.
When Caston returned from the service in 1945, he and Dixon formed the Big Three Trio with guitarist Bernardo Dennis, who was later replaced by Ollie Crawford. The trio featured an amalgam of harmony blues and pop with a slick stage show. The Big Three played and recorded until 1952.
To earn extra money and satisfy his yen for harder material, Dixon was also jamming with Muddy Waters and other bluesmen in the clubs of Chicago’s South Side. One night late at the Macomba Lounge, Dixon met Phil and Leonard Chess, who had recently started the Aristocrat label (later Chess Records).
Dixon played on Robert Nighthawk’s “My Sweet Lovin’ Woman” in 1948 and went to work at the label as studio bass player and general go-fer. Dixon’s talents as a something more than a glorified houseboy weren’t really recognized by the Chesses until 1954 when Waters recorded Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Evil,” and Little Walter and His Jukes cut “Mellow Down Easy.”
Dixon played bass on recordings by Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Jimmy Witherspoon, Wolf and hundreds of others throughout the ‘50s. Producing was a role that Dixon eased into over time as his arranging and writing talents came to the fore – although Leonard Chess’s name appears as producer on virtually all Chess recordings made in the ‘50s.
The standard practice of designating as “producer” the A&R man at the major labels, or the owner of the label at the indies, confuses the matter of production credits in general until at least the mid-’60s.
The same people were also given often-spurious songwriting credits with the rationale that these recognizable “names” would help get the record played on the radio and in record stores.
Much later Dixon, Waters, Berry and others recovered copyright credit and royalties for songwriting, but as there were no producer royalties at the time (i.e. no money at stake), the veracity of these credits remain forever swirling in the ether. By way of compromise, the Chess Blues box set credits all Chicago productions to Leonard and Phil Chess and Willie Dixon.
Willie Dixon’s income from Chess for all of these duties, including songwriting, was around $100 a week, leading to his growing dissatisfaction. Dixon went to work for local rival Cobra Records in 1957, and in the two years before the label’s financial collapse, he recorded with Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy, among others.
Dixon returned to Chess and stayed with the company throughout the ‘60s. Although Willie played little bass with Chess in the ‘60s as the electric bass sound became favored over his stand-up acoustic, he wrote and produced for Wolf, Waters, Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Shakey Horton and most notably Koko Taylor (“Wang Dang Doodle,” Chess’ last true blues hit).
A European concert promoter named Horst Lippmann began a series of shows called the American Folk-Blues Festival, under the aegis of which he brought many of the top American blues players over to tour the continent. Dixon coordinated the musical side of these shows, performed and recorded at them with the Chicago Blues All-Stars throughout the ‘60s, and earned more money from this work than from Chess.
This European connection helped foster interest in Dixon’s songwriting, and the blues rock bands of England began to cover his songs. The Stones even recorded their first American album at Chess to be near Willie and their other blues heroes like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Determined to consolidate his legacy, Dixon recorded an album of his best known songs, I Am the Blues, for Columbia in 1970. Ironically, Dixon’s best known recording was produced not by himself, but by Abner Spector (no relation to Phil), who also produced the Jaynette’s hit “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses.”
A killer band – with Dixon belting out Howlin’ Wolf-like vocals and thumping his bass, Shakey Horton on harmonica, Sunnyland Slim and Lafayette Leake on piano, Johnny Shines on guitar and Clifton James on drums – make Dixon’s timeless tunes like “I Can’t Quit You,” “Seventh Son,” “Spoonful,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “The Little Red Rooster” his own. Dixon’s syncopated version of “Back Door Man” is definitive.
In the ‘70s Dixon came to realize that his deal with ARC, the publishing arm of Chess, was not yielding financial fruits commensurate with his songwriting success. ARC sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Bring It on Home” on Led Zeppelin ll, arguing that it was Dixon’s song, and won a settlement that Dixon never saw any part of until his manager conducted an audit of ARC’s accounts.
Dixon also sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over the resemblance between “Whole Lotta Love” and “You Need Love.” The settlement of those two cases brought Dixon substantial sums of money.
Dixon also got involved with film, scoring music for The Color of Money and producing Bo Diddley’s version of “Who Do You Love” for La Bamba. In 1980 Dixon was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. Dixon formed the Blues Heaven Foundation, in part to help recover copyrights for blues songwriters who had been deprived of funds and credit for their songs in the bad old days.
Dixon’s ill health forced him to perform only part-time with the Chicago Blues All-Stars by 1990, though he remained active with the Blues Heaven Foundation (now fittingly located in the old Chess building in Chicago). Willie Dixon died of a heart ailment in 1992 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 – a man who helped the blues move from the Delta to Chicago to the world.