January 29, 1992 – Willie Dixon was born July 1st 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His mother Daisy often rhymed the things she said, a habit her son imitated. At the age of seven, young Dixon became an admirer of a band that featured pianist Little Brother Montgomery. He sang his first song at Springfield Baptist Church at the age of four. Dixon was first introduced to blues when he served time on prison farms in Mississippi as an early teenager.
He later learned how to sing harmony from local carpenter Leo Phelps. Dixon sang bass in Phelps’ group The Jubilee Singers, a local gospel quartet that regularly appeared on the Vicksburg radio station WQBC. Dixon began adapting poems he was writing as songs, and even sold some tunes to local music groups. By the time he was a teenager, Dixon was writing songs and selling copies to the local bands. With his bass voice, Dixon later joined a group organized by Phelps, the Union Jubilee Singers, who appeared on local radio.
Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936. A man of considerable stature, at 6 and a half feet and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing; he was so successful that he won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937. Dixon turned professional as a boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis’ sparring partner. After four fights, Dixon left boxing after getting into a fight with his manager over being cheated out of money.
Dixon met Leonard Caston at the boxing gym where they would harmonize at times. Dixon performed in several vocal groups in Chicago but it was Caston that got him to pursue music seriously. Caston built him his first bass, made of a tin can and one string. Dixon’s experience singing bass made the instrument familiar. Moreover, Dixon also learned how to harmonize by Theo Phelps, a jubilee singer. He also learned to play the guitar.
In 1939, Dixon was a founding member of the Five Breezes, with Caston, Joe Bell, Gene Gilmore and Willie Hawthorne. The group blended blues, jazz, and vocal harmonies, in the mode of the Ink Spots. Dixon’s progress on the Upright bass came to an abrupt halt during the advent of World War II when he resisted the draft as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for ten months. Dixon decided not to fight in the war because he did not want to support a nation who continued to promote institutionalized racist laws. After the war, he formed a group named the Four Jumps of Jive and then reunited with Caston, forming the Big Three Trio, who went on to record for Columbia Records.
Dixon signed with Chess Records as a recording artist, but began performing less, being more involved with administrative tasks for the label. By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer, talent scout, session musician and staff songwriter. He was also a producer for Chess subsidiary Checker Records. His relationship with Chess was sometimes strained, although he stayed with the label from 1948 to the early 1960s. During this time Dixon’s output and influence were prodigious. From late 1956 to early 1959, he worked in a similar capacity for Cobra Records, where he produced early singles for Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy. He later recorded on Bluesville Records. From the late 1960s until the middle 1970s, Dixon ran his own record label, Yambo Records, along with two subsidiary labels, Supreme and Spoonful. He released his 1971 album Peace? on Yambo, as well as singles by McKinley Mitchell, Lucky Peterson and others.
Dixon is considered one of the key figures in the creation of Chicago blues. He worked with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Joe Louis Walker, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, Jimmy Rogers, Sam Lay and others.
In December 1964, The Rolling Stones reached No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart with their cover of Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.” He became a hugely important link between the blues and rock and roll, as his songs were covered by some of the biggest bands of the 1960s and 1970s, including Bob Dylan, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Allman Brothers Band, and the Grateful Dead.
His songwriting credits include “Little Red Rooster”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Evil”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “My Babe”, “Wang Dang Doodle”, and “Bring It on Home”, written during the peak of Chess Records, 1950-1965, and performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, influenced a worldwide generation of musicians.
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.
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. 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 continued performing, and was also called in as a producer on movie soundtracks such as Gingerale Afternoon and La Bamba, producing 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 from heart failure on January 29, 1992 at age 76.