By Dag Walker
You gotta listen to this– Willie Dixon– the Bard of the Blues. You gotta listen. Willie Dixon and the Chicago Blues. He’s ready for you, and I hope you’re ready for him. Ready as anybody can be!
If you don’t love this music, contact your lawyer and have me removed from your will.
(NO! I was kidding.)
Willie Dixon. The coolest, hottest Chicago bluesman on earth.
Willie Dixon is one of those famous people most people have never heard of. My father heard of him. My father was a big guy, even when I was a big guy. I could hear my father coming down the hallway, pounding on my door, shouting, “Turn off that damned noise.” I’d say, “But, dad, it’s Willie Dixon.” That was as far as my father’s education in Chicago blues went. It’s more than many people know. The funny thing is, most music listeners know a lot of Willie Dixon tunes, they just don’t know it’s originally his music. Who hasn’t heard, “I was built for comfort, not for speed.”
Dixon is the “Hootchy-Kootchy Man.” (Muddy Waters.) His music is known to many because of the Rolling Stones and Howlin’ Wolf: “Little Red Rooster.” Skinny teenage white kids in England were playing Willie Dixon music back in the early 1960s, music that’s still rocking the world today, Eric Clapton doing “Spoonful.” Little Walter, and Bo Diddley; Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck. Chuck Berry. The Doors. The Pointer Sisters. In the history of 20th century music, Willie Dixon is legendary.
As a boy, in order to listen to Willie Dixon music I had to hide in the closet, my ear pressed to the tinny speaker of the portable record player. “I’ll wang dang doodle yer head,” my father would shout. Nobody could do it like the Pointer Sisters, those ladies covering Dixon’s tune so well that even my father might have liked it if he’d given it a chance. (OK, I tried. )
Willie Dixon was born in 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of 14 children. Dixon, six feet six inches tall and 250 pounds, moved to Chicago where he became a successful boxer in 1936. He quit, and, having met a fellow singer, Leonard Caston, at the gym they’d been at, “Caston built him his first bass, made of a tin can and one string.”1.
Dixon, playing upright bass,2. was a blues musician, vocalist, and a prolific songwriter, composing over 500 songs, many of them classics to this day. If you’ve listened to American and English music from the 1960s and ‘70s, you have heard Willie Dixon’s music. You just might not have known.
He received a Grammy Award, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. In 1989 he received a Grammy Award for his album Hidden Charms. It’s amazing that he’s not famous-really-famous.
In December 1964, the Rolling Stones reached number one on the UK Singles Chart with their cover of Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” In the same year, the group also covered “I Just Want To Make Love To You” on their debut album, The Rolling Stones. How come they’re famous? It was Willie Dixon really sang the blues.
“I been writing about the true facts of life that exists today, and yesterday and for what I hope will be tomorrow a better future.”3.
Dixon came by the blues honestly, having spent time in a Mississippi prison as a boy, and later, during World War II, he put in ten months for refusing to be drafted. One can sympathise. Even the U.S. government has to bend a bit if they expect a man to die for it. The period though was one of Jim Crow laws, shameful things that have no right place in this article. There must have always been men like Wilberforce, even a few like Jehuda Ashman. In the 1940s, maybe not so many. It might not seem like much now, but in the ‘60s, music was a bridge between those who were otherwise segregated. White kids in the wilds of the far mountains knew, because of the music, that those excluded were somehow our friends, because who other than a friend could make us feel so alive? But, we were kids, and the police were adults. With guns. Even so, thank God, things changed.
Maybe life is easy for the rich, though I got my own doubts. I suspect everyone suffers some. It’s a matter of what they do with it. Some turn their experiences into the blues. It makes the rest of us live a little easier. But that’s all politics and I don’t care.
Dixon claimed, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”5.
“Hoochie Coochie Man” is one of the most interpreted Waters and Dixon songs. “The US Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry selected it for preservation in 2004. The song has been covered dozens of times by artists as varied as …”2. Well, mostly folks I’ve never heard of– except for Jimi Hendrix.
There is a good round-up of some of Dixon’s most famous songs at J.D. Nash, “Top 12 Willie Dixon Songs,” American Blues Scene, July 1, 2020.2. See below:
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” was recorded by Led Zeppelin on their debut album, as well as by Little Milton, John Mayall, Gary Moore, and several others.
“Back Door Man” was first released by Howlin’ Wolf as the B-side of “Wang Dang Doodle.” In Southern culture, the phrase “back-door man” refers to a man having an affair with a married woman, using the back door as an exit before the husband comes home. The song was recorded in Chicago in June 1960. The Doors.
“Dixon’s “Spoonful” is loosely based on “A Spoonful Blues”, a song recorded in 1929 by Charley Patton, which is related to “All I Want Is a Spoonful” by Papa Charlie Jackson (1925) and “Cocaine Blues” by Luke Jordan (1927). The British rock group Cream recorded “Spoonful” for their 1966
“I Just Want to Make Love to You” is a 1954 blues song written by Dixon, and first recorded by Muddy Waters. In 1961, Etta James recorded the song for her début album At Last! Arguably the most covered of all the Willie Dixon songs, “I Just Want to Make Love to You” has been recorded by The Animals, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Shadows of Knight, Mungo Jerry, Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Paul Rodgers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, April Wine, Robben Ford, Meat Puppets, The Righteous Brothers, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke and dozens more.
“Etta James wasn’t the only woman to make a Dixon song famous. Although first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in June of 1960, “Wang Dang Doodle” took on a life of its own when the great Koko Taylor wrapped her snarling vocals around it on December 7th, 1965. 2.
And there are the Pointer Sisters!
Someone wrote a comment on the Internet claiming that as a young man he was looking in the Los Angeles phone book and saw a number for Willie Dixon. He called. The commenter said Dixon was very nice on the phone and they spoke for a while. When I called President Trump all I got was an overnight interview with the FBI. If only I’d known Willie Dixon was in the phone book….
Willie Dixon died of heart failure in Burbank, California on January 29, 1992. If there is a heaven, he and all the angels are gonna wang dang doodle all eternity long.
Main Photo: Willie Dixon, /Guitartricks.com
- 2 https://www.americanbluesscene.com/top-12-willie-dixon-songs