Willie Dixon’s life and work was virtually an embodiment of the progress of the blues, from an accidental creation of the descendants of freed slaves to a recognized and vital part of America’s musical heritage. That Dixon was one of the first professional blues songwriters to benefit in a serious, material way — and that he had to fight to do it — from his work also made him an important symbol of the injustice that still informs the music industry, even at the end of the 20th century. A producer, songwriter, bassist, and singer, he helped Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others find their most commercially successful voices.
Dixon’s songs literally created the so-called “Chicago blues sound” and were recorded by such blues artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, and many others. One of his better known compositions, “Back Door Man,” was recorded by the Doors. Some of Dixon’s songs went on to reach an international audience in the 1960s, when they were popularized by such British groups as the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, and Led Zeppelin.
Willie Dixon was born on July 1, 1915, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg was a lively town located on the Mississippi River midway between New Orleans and Memphis. Known as the site of a famous Civil War battle, Vicksburg was important musically as well. As a youth, Dixon heard a variety of blues, dixieland, and ragtime musicians performing on the streets, at picnics and other community functions, and in the clubs near his home where he would listen to them from the sidewalk.
Dixon grew up in an integrated neighborhood on the northern edge of Vicksburg, where his mother ran a small restaurant. The family of seven children lived behind the restaurant, and next to the restaurant was Curley’s Barrelhouse. Listening from the street, Dixon, then about eight years old, heard bluesmen Little Brother Montgomery and Charley Patton perform there along with a variety of ragtime and dixieland piano players.
Dixon first ran away from home when he was eleven. As he recalled in his autobiography, I Am the Blues, “I ran out in the country to a place 11 miles from home called Bovine, Mississippi…. It was nothing like I expected—man, you’re talking about a shack…. I thought our house was raggedy but… the house [I stayed] in had great big holes in the floor. You could see the hogs and chickens running around under the house.”
His first taste of country living also introduced him to hard work, something he would become more familiar with as he grew older. Although Dixon was happy when he got back home, his pre-teen and teen years were filled with travels and run-ins with the law. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, many men were riding the rails in search of work. Dixon soon found that“hoboing” was considered a crime, although, as he noted in his autobiography, it seemed that only black men were arrested for it.
Dixon was only twelve when he first landed in jail and was sent to a county farm for stealing some fixtures from an old torn-down house. He recalled in I Am the Blues : “That’s when I really learned about the blues. I had heard ’em with the music and took ’em to be an enjoyable thing but after I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these really down-to-earth blues, I began to inquire about ’em…. I really began to find out what the blues meant to black people, how it gave them consolation to be able to think these things over and sing them to themselves or let other people know what they had in mind and how they resented various things in life.”
About a year later Dixon was caught by the local authorities near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and arrested for hoboing. He was given thirty days at the Harvey Allen County Farm, located near the infamous Parchman Farm prison. At the Allen Farm, Dixon saw many prisoners being mistreated and beaten. According to his autobiography, the authorities who were “running the farm didn’t have no mercy—you talk about mean, ignorant, evil, stupid and crazy. [They] fouled up many a man’s life…. This was the first time I saw a man beat to death.
Dixon himself was mistreated at the county farm, receiving a blow to his head that he said made him deaf for about four years. He managed to escape, though, and walked to Memphis, where he hopped a freight into Chicago. He stayed there briefly at his sister’s house, then went to New York for a short time before returning to Vicksburg.
When Dixon arrived in Chicago in 1936, he started training to be a boxer. He was in excellent physical condition from the heavy work he had been doing down south, and he was a big man as well. In 1937 he won the Illinois Golden Gloves in the novice heavyweight category. However, after getting into a brawl in the boxing commissioner’s office over the money he was supposed to receive, Dixon was suspended for six months, and his handlers were expelled permanently.
By the time he was a teenager, Dixon was writing songs and selling copies to the local bands. He also studied music with a local carpenter, Theo Phelps, who taught him about harmony singing. With his bass voice, Dixon later joined a group organized by Phelps, the Union Jubilee Singers, who appeared on local radio. He might have been a successful boxer, but he turned to music instead, thanks to Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, a guitarist who had seen Dixon at the gym where he worked out and occasionally sang with him. The two formed a duo playing on street corners, and later Dixon took up the bass as an instrument. Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston gave Dixon his first musical instrument—a makeshift bass made out of an oil can and one string. They later formed a group, the Five Breezes, who recorded for the Bluebird label. Later on he formed another group, the Four Jumps of Jive. In 1945, however, Dixon was back working with Caston in a group called the Big Three Trio, with guitarist Bernardo Dennis (later replaced by Ollie Crawford).
Dixon had other problems, though, notably with the local draft board. His position was that black people had been exploited so much that they should not be obligated to serve in the armed forces. He spoke out on this issue frequently and with great force; eventually he was classified as unfit for military service and forbidden to work in any defense industry.
During this period, Dixon would occasionally appear as a bassist at late-night jam sessions featuring members of the growing blues community, including Muddy Waters. Later on when the Chess brothers — who owned a club where Dixon occasionally played — began a new record label, Aristocrat (later Chess), they hired him, initially as a bassist on a 1948 session for Robert Nighthawk. The Chess brothers liked Dixon’s playing, and his skills as a songwriter and arranger, and during the next two years he was working regularly for the Chess brothers. He got to record some of his own material, but generally Dixon was seldom featured as an artist at any of these sessions.
Dixon’s real recognition as a songwriter began with Muddy Waters’ recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The success of that single, “Evil” by Howlin’ Wolf, and “My Babe” by Little Walter saw Dixon established as Chess’ most reliable tunesmith, and the Chess brothers continually pushed Dixon’s songs on their artists. In addition to writing songs, Dixon continued as bassist and recording manager of many of the Chess label’s recording sessions, including those by Lowell Fulson, Bo Diddley, and Otis Rush. Dixon’s remuneration for all of this work, including the songwriting, was minimal — he was barely able to support his rapidly growing family on the 100 dollars a week that the Chess brothers were giving him, and a short stint with the rival Cobra label at the end of the ’50s didn’t help him much.
In 1955 Dixon charted his first Number One hit when Little Walter recorded “My Babe,” a song that became a blues classic. Songwriter Mike Stoller of Leiber and Stoller fame told Goldmine magazine, “If he’d only done ‘My Babe’ [and nothing else], I think his name would have gone down in the history of American popular music. He created the entire sound that we now know as the Chess sound, and as such, he’s one of the most important record producers ever in the history of popular music. What impressed me most about his songs were their economy, their simplicity and their depth.” One of Dixon’s most widely recorded songs, “My Babe” has been performed and recorded by artists as varied as the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, the Righteous Brothers, Nancy Wilson, Ike and Tina Turner, and blues artists John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
During the mid-’60s, Chess gradually phased out Dixon’s bass work, in favor of electric bass, thus reducing his presence at many of the sessions. At the same time, a European concert promoter named Horst Lippmann had begun a series of shows called the American Folk-Blues Festival, for which he would bring some of the top blues players in America over to tour the continent. Dixon ended up organizing the musical side of these shows for the first decade or more, recording on his own as well and earning a good deal more money than he was seeing from his work for Chess. At the same time, he began to see a growing interest in his songwriting from the British rock bands that he saw while in London — his music was getting covered regularly by artists like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, and when he visited England, he even found himself cajoled into presenting his newest songs to their managements. Back at Chess, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters continued to perform Dixon’s songs, as did newer artists such as Koko Taylor, who had her own hit with “Wang Dang Doodle.” Gradually, however, after the mid-’60s, Dixon saw his relationship with Chess Records come to a halt. Partly this was a result of time — the passing of artists such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson reduced the label’s roster of older performers, with whom he had worked for years, and the company’s experiments with more rock-oriented sounds (especially on the “Cadet Concept” imprint) took it’s output in a direction to which Dixon couldn’t contribute. He continued to play on recording sessions at Chess, though, most notably providing bass on all of Chuck Berry’s sessions starting with the recording of “Maybelline” in 1955. The death of Leonard Chess in the fall of 1969 and the subsequent sale of the company brought about the end of Dixon’s relationship to the company.
In 1957 Dixon joined the small independent Cobra Records, where he recorded such bluesmen as Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam, creating what became known as the “West Side Sound.” According to Don Snowden in I Am the Blues, it was a blues style that “fused the Delta influence of classic Chicago blues with single-string lead guitar lines à la B. B. King. The West Side gave birth to a less traditional, more modern blues sound and the emphasis placed on the guitar as a lead instrument ultimately proved to be a vastly influential force on the British blues crew in their formative stages.”
Gradually learning more about the music business, Dixon formed his own publishing company, Ghana Music, in 1957 and registered it with Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) to protect his copyright interest in his own songs. His “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was a Top Ten rhythm and blues hit for Otis Rush, but Cobra Records soon faced financial difficulties. By 1959 Dixon was back at Chess as a full-time employee.
By the end of the 1960s, Dixon was eager to try his hand as a performer again, a career that had been interrupted when he’d gone to work for Chess as a producer. He recorded an album of his best-known songs, I Am the Blues, for Columbia Records, and organized a touring band, the Chicago Blues All Stars, to play concerts in Europe.
Perhaps the tour’s greatest impact was in England, where it was booked by Giorgio Gomelsky in London at his Crawdaddy Club. At that time, Gomelsky managed the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, groups that went on to record at the Chess Studios in Chicago later in the 1960s. Dixon often provided young British musicians with original compositions, and as a result, his reputation as a songwriter grew among the new generation of rock musicians.
Jack Bruce of the British group Cream told Goldmine how thrilled he was when Dixon offered him encouragement about Cream’s version of “Spoonful.” “It was as a writer that Willie Dixon most influenced music—and me,” Bruce noted. “His incredible ability to tap in to the whole world’s consciousness made it possible for him to write songs that will never die.”
Suddenly, in his fifties, he began making a major name for himself on-stage for the first time in his career. Around this time, Dixon began to have grave doubts about the nature of the songwriting contract that he had with Chess’ publishing arm, Arc Music. He was seeing precious little money from songwriting, despite the recording of hit versions of such Dixon songs as “Spoonful” by Cream. He had never seen as much money as he was entitled to as a songwriter, but during the 1970s he began to understand just how much money he’d been deprived of, by design or just plain negligence on the part of the publisher doing its job on his behalf.
Arc Music had sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Bring It on Home” on Led Zeppelin II, saying that it was Dixon’s song, and won a settlement that Dixon never saw any part of until his manager did an audit of Arc’s accounts.Dixon and Muddy Waters would later file suit against Arc Music to recover royalties and the ownership of their copyrights. Additionally, many years later Dixon brought suit against Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Whole Lotta Love” and its resemblance to Dixon’s “You Need Love.” Both cases resulted in out-of-court settlements that were generous to the songwriter.
The 1980s saw Dixon as the last survivor of the Chess blues stable and he began working with various organizations to help secure song copyrights on behalf of blues songwriters who, like himself, had been deprived of revenue during previous decades. In 1988, Dixon became the first producer/songwriter to be honored with a boxed set collection, when MCA Records released Willie Dixon: The Chess Box, which included several rare Dixon sides as well as the most famous recordings of his songs by Chess’ stars. The following year, Dixon published I Am the Blues (Da Capo Press), his autobiography, written in association with Don Snowden.
Dixon resumed touring and regrouped the Chicago Blues All-Stars in the early 1980s. A 1983 live recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland resulted in another Grammy nomination. That same year, Dixon and his family moved to southern California, where Dixon began working on scores for movies. He produced a new version of “Who Do You Love” for Bo Diddley that was featured on the soundtrack for La Bamba, a film about Mexican American rock and roll sensation Ritchie Valens, and he performed his own “Don’t You Tell Me Nothin’” in Martin Scorsese’s 1986 pool hustler flick, The Color of Money.
In the 1980s, Dixon established the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing scholarship awards and musical instruments to poorly funded schools. Blues Heaven also offers assistance to indigent blues musicians and helps them secure the rights to their songs. Ever active in protecting his own copyrights, Dixon himself reached an out-of-court settlement in 1987 over the similarity of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 hit “Whole Lotta Love” to his own“You Need Love.”
Dixon’s final two albums were well received, with the 1988 album Hidden Charms winning a Grammy Award for best traditional blues recording. In 1989 he recorded the soundtrack for the film Ginger Ale Afternoon, which also was nominated for a Grammy.
When Dixon died in 1992 at the age of 76, the music world lost one of its foremost blues composers and performers. From his musical roots in the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, Dixon created a body of work that reflected the changing times in which he lived. His later songs kept pace with dynamic world issues, as exemplified by the composition “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace).” As Dixon concluded in I Am the Blues, “If you accept the wisdom of the blues, we can definitely have peace.”
Dixon continued performing, and was also called in as a producer for the work of his old stablemate Bo Diddley. By that time, Dixon was regarded as something of an elder statesman, composer, and spokesperson of American blues. Dixon eventually began suffering from increasingly poor health, and lost a leg to diabetes. He died peacefully in his sleep early in 1992.