Willie Dixon - Biography
By J Poet
Though Willie Dixon didn’t make many records under his own name, he’s still undoubtedly one of the founding fathers of both modern Chicago blues and rock’n’roll. Dixon wrote some of the blues’ biggest hits, like Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil,” and Little Walter’s “My Babe,” …not to mention “Spoonful,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Bring It on Home,” “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “Big Boss Man” and about 500 more. His hits built Chess Records into a blues powerhouse; although he eventually sued them and won back some of the rights to his music.
Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1915, where he heard blues, Dixieland and ragtime musicians playing on the streets. He lived in a house behind his mother’s restaurant, next to Curley’s Barrelhouse, a blues joint where he could hear Little Brother Montgomery and Charley Patton singing at night. He frequently ran away from home and at twelve he was serving time on a county farm for stealing plumbing from an abandoned house. He sang briefly with the Union Jubilee Singers gospel quartet on Vicksburg radio station WQBC before roaming the country before ending up in Chicago in 1936. There he began boxing, eventually winning the Illinois Golden Gloves novice heavyweight championship, but subsequently banned when he complained about not getting paid.
Dixon then turned back to music, learning guitar and bass – the latter on a homemade instrument with one string. He joined The Five Breezes (with Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston) and made a single in 1939 that sold poorly. When Dixon was drafted, he refused to serve, citing the social and economic oppression of black people. After a lengthy struggle, the draft board deemed him unfit for duty.
In 1946, Dixon and Caston formed The Big Three Trio, modeled on pop groups like The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots. They made some successful records for Columbia but broke up in 1951. Willie Dixon: The Big Three Trio (1990 Columbia) collects some of their best tracks. The Chess brothers hired Dixon that same year and he quickly became their head producer, arranger and bandleader, in addition to playing bass on many sessions. In 1954, Muddy Waters had a hit with “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and Dixon began writing for Chess. He penned “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” and “I'm Ready” for Waters. Both reached the Top 10 on the Rhythm & Blues Records charts. At the end of 1956, after charting countless hits, he left the label over royalty and contract disputes, although he continued to pay sessions, most famously on Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.”
In 1957, he started his own publishing house, Ghana Music, and then returned to Chess. On his own, he cut some down-home acoustic sessions with Memphis Slim for the small Prestige label including Willie’s Blues (1959 Bluesville). The duo played the 1959 Newport Folk Festival and became favorites at folk and blues clubs in the ‘60s. In 1962, Dixon joined the First American Folk Blues Festival; a package tour put together by German blues fans Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. He stayed until 1965, when he became the tour’s Chicago A&R man. When the British Invasion came along, Dixon was one of the writers bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Cream turned to for material. The Stones had a number one hit with “Little Red Rooster,” the first blues song to top the UK Singles Chart.
By the late ‘60s, soul and rock had largely pushed the blues aside and in 1969, Chess was sold to GRT, where it eventually became part of Universal Music Group. Dixon’s work for Chess, both on his own and as a sideman and writer, is collected on the box set, The Original Wang Dang Doodle – The Chess Recordings and More (1989 MCA). In 1969, Dixon put together the Chicago Blues All-Stars with Johnny Shines (guitar and vocals), Sunnyland Slim (piano), Walter Horton (harmonica), Clifton James (drums) and Dixon on bass and vocals. In 1969, he released I Am the Blues (Columbia), an album filled with classic songs. He later started his own label, Yambo, and cut Catalyst (1973) and What’s Happened to My Blues? (1977), both were nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammys. In 1977, Dixon had a foot amputated due to diabetic complications but it didn’t slow him down as he moved to California and started writing for movies. He performed “Don't You Tell Me Nothin’” in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) and produced a new version of “Who Do You Love” for the La Bamba Soundtrack. He also appeared in the films Raw Justice, Night of the Warrior and Rich Girl.
In 1982, he set up the Blues Heaven Foundation to mentor young players and help old timers win back the rights to their royalties. He received a large out of court settlement from Led Zeppelin for “Whole Lotta Love” due to its similarity to his “You Need Love.” His last albums were the Grammy winning (Best Traditional Blues Recording) Hidden Charms (1988 Capital) and Ginger Ale Afternoon (1989 Varèse Sarabande), which was also nominated for a Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy. Dixon died in 1992 in Burbank, California. Two years later, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.