William James Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was an American blues musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and record producer. He was proficient in playing both the upright bass and the guitar, and sang with a distinctive voice, but he is perhaps best known as one of the most prolific songwriters of his time. Next to Muddy Waters, Dixon is recognized as the most influential person in shaping the post–World War II sound of the Chicago blues.
Dixon's songs have been recorded by countless musicians in many genres as well as by various ensembles in which he participated. A short list of his most famous compositions includes "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You", "Little Red Rooster", "My Babe", "Spoonful", and "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover". These songs were written during the peak years of Chess Records, from 1950 to 1965, and were performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley; they influenced a generation of musicians worldwide.
Dixon was an important link between the blues and rock and roll, working with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the late 1950s. His songs have been covered by some of the most successful musicians of the past sixty years including Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Jeff Beck, Cream, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Steppenwolf all featured at least one of his songs on their debut albums, a measure of his influence on rock music.
Dixon at Harry Hope's in Cary, Illinois, 1979
|Birth name||William James Dixon|
|Born||July 1, 1915|
Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||January 29, 1992 (aged 76)|
Burbank, California, buried: Burr Oak Cemetery
|Genres||Blues, rock and roll, Chicago blues, jump blues, rhythm and blues, gospel|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, songwriter, arranger, record producer, boxer|
|Instruments||Vocals, double bass, guitar|
|Labels||Chess, Cobra, Columbia, Bluesville, Checker, Verve, MCA, Legacy, Columbia, Yambo|
|Associated acts||Big Three Trio, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Lowell Fulson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Otis Spann|
Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 1, 1915. He was one of fourteen children. His mother, Daisy, often rhymed 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 a young teenager. Later in his teens, he learned how to sing harmony from a local carpenter, Theo Phelps, who led a gospel quintet, the Union Jubilee Singers, in which Dixon sang bass; the group regularly performed on the Vicksburg radio station WQBC. He began adapting his poems into songs and even sold some to local music groups.
Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936. A man of considerable stature, standing 6 and a half feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing, at which he was successful, winning the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937. He became a professional boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis's sparring partner, but after four fights he left boxing in a dispute with his manager over money.
Dixon met Leonard Caston at a boxing gym, where they would harmonize at times. Dixon performed in several vocal groups in Chicago, but it was Caston that persuaded 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. 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 with the advent of World War II, when he refused induction into military service as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for ten months. He refused to go to war because he would not fight for a nation in which institutionalized racism and racist laws were prevalent. After the war, he formed a group named the Four Jumps of Jive. He then reunited with Caston, forming the Big Three Trio, which went on to record for Columbia Records.
Dixon signed with Chess Records as a recording artist, but he 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 the Chess subsidiary Checker Records. His relationship with Chess was sometimes strained, but 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, for which he produced early singles for Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy. He later recorded for Bluesville Records. From the late 1960s until the mid-1970s, Dixon ran his own record label, Yambo Records, and two subsidiary labels, Supreme and Spoonful. He released his 1971 album, Peace?, on Yambo and also 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 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.
In his later years, Dixon became a tireless ambassador for the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the blues and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past. Speaking with the simple eloquence that was a hallmark of his songs, 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." In 1977, unhappy with the small royalties paid by Chess's publishing company, Arc Music, Dixon and Muddy Waters sued Arc and, with the proceeds from the settlement, founded their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music.
In 1987, Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with the rock band Led Zeppelin after suing for plagiarism in the band's use of his music in "Bring It On Home" and lyrics from his composition "You Need Love" (1962) in the band's recording of "Whole Lotta Love".
Dixon died of heart failure on January 29, 1992, in Burbank, California, and was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois. After his death, his widow, Marie Dixon, took over the Blues Heaven Foundation and moved the headquarters to Chess Records. Dixon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influences (pre-rock) in 1994. On April 28, 2013, both Dixon and his grandson Alex Dixon were inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame.
|1959||Willie's Blues||Bluesville||BVLP-1003||With Memphis Slim|
|1960||Blues Every Which Way||Verve||MGV-3007||With Memphis Slim|
|1960||Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon||Folkways||FW-2385|
|1962||Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon at the Village Gate||Folkways||FA-2386||Live, with Pete Seeger|
|1963||In Paris: Baby Please Come Home!||Battle||BM-6122||With Memphis Slim, 1962|
|1970||I Am the Blues||Columbia||PC-9987||With the Chicago All Stars; also released on DVD, 2003|
|1971||Willie Dixon's Peace?||Yambo||777-15||With the Chicago All Stars|
|1976||What Happened to My Blues||Ovation||OV-1705|
|1983||Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane||Pausa||PR-7157|
|1985||Willie Dixon: Live (Backstage Access)||Pausa||PR-7183||With Sugar Blue and Clifton James, Montreux, 1985|
|1988||Hidden Charms||Bug||C1-90593||Grammy-winning album|
|1989||Ginger Ale Afternoon||Varèse Sarabande||VSD-5234||Soundtrack for movie of the same name|
|1990||The Big Three Trio||Legacy||C-46216||Recorded 1947–1952|
|1993||Willie Dixon's Blues Dixonary||Roots||RTS 33046||EAN: 8712177013760|
|1995||The Original Wang Dang Doodle: The Chess Recordings||MCA||9353||Compilation of recordings (some previously unreleased) from 1954 to 1990|
|1996||Crying the Blues: Live in Concert||Thunderbolt||CDTB-166||Live, with Johnny Winter and the Chicago All Stars, Houston, 1971|
|1998||Good Advice||Wolf||120,700||Live, with the Chicago All Stars, Long Beach, 1991|
|1998||I Think I Got the Blues||Prevue||17|
|2001||Big Boss Men: Blues Legends of the Sixties||Indigo (UK)||IGOXCD543||Live, Houston, 1971–72 (six tracks)|
|2008||Giant of the Blues||Blues Boulevard Records||250196||EAN: 5413992501960|
In addition to songwriting, arranging, and producing, Dixon also contributed to recording sessions on double bass. However, as electric bass became dominant in the 1960s, his role as a sideman declined. Albums on which he appears include those with:
"Back Door Man" is a blues song written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1960. It was released in 1961 by Chess Records as the B-side to Wolf's "Wang Dang Doodle" (catalog no. 1777). The song is considered a classic of Chicago blues.Bring It On Home (Sonny Boy Williamson II song)
"Bring It On Home" is a blues song written by American music arranger and songwriter Willie Dixon. Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded it in 1963, but the song was not released until 1966. Led Zeppelin adapted it in part as a homage to Williamson in 1969 and subsequently, the song has been recorded by several artists.Diddy Wah Diddy
"Diddy Wah Diddy" is a song written by Willie Dixon and Ellas McDaniel, known as Bo Diddley, and recorded by the latter in 1956. The song shares only its title with Blind Blake's song "Diddie Wah Diddie" recorded in 1929. Over the years, the Bo Diddley song has been covered by many bands and artists, including The Astronauts, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, The Remains, The Twilights, Taj Mahal, The Sonics, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ty Segall Band, and The Blues Band among others.Evil (Howlin' Wolf song)
"Evil", sometimes listed as "Evil (Is Going On)", is a Chicago blues standard written by Willie Dixon. Howlin' Wolf recorded the song for Chess Records in 1954. It was included on the 1959 compilation album Moanin' in the Moonlight. When he re-recorded it for The Howlin' Wolf Album in 1969, "Evil" became Wolf's last charting single (#43 Billboard R&B chart).The 1954 song features sidemen Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams (guitars), Otis Spann (piano), Willie Dixon (double-bass), and Earl Phillips (drums). Wolf achieves a coarse, emotional performance with his strained singing, lapsing into falsetto. The song, a twelve-bar blues, is punctuated with a syncopated backbeat, brief instrumental improvisations, upper-end piano figures, and intermittent blues harp provided by Wolf. The lyrics caution about the "evil" that takes place in a man's home when he is away, concluding with "you better watch your happy home".The song has been recorded by numerous artists, including: Luther Allison, Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, Derek and the Dominos, Gary Moore, Cactus, The Faces, Dee Snider (with Widowmaker), Jake E. Lee, Monster Magnet, The Dead Daisies and Steve Miller. Koko Taylor's version of the song appeared in the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting. Tom Jones recorded a version of the song in 2011, produced by Jack White. It includes a snippet of The Doors' "Wild Child". Jace Everett and C. C. Adcock also recorded a version, which was used as the featured song for the third season finale of the HBO series True Blood. Greta Van Fleet also played the song regularly in their concerts in 2017.Help Me (Sonny Boy Williamson II song)
"Help Me" is a blues standard first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson II in 1963. The song, a mid-tempo twelve-bar blues, is credited to Williamson, Willie Dixon, and Ralph Bass and is based on the 1962 instrumental hit "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs. "Help Me" became a hit in 1963 and reached number 24 in the Billboard R&B chart.The song was later included on the 1966 Williamson compilation More Folk Blues.. In 1987, "Help Me" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the "Classic of Blues Recordings" category. It is featured on many Sonny Boy Williamson greatest hits albums including His Best.Hoochie Coochie Man
"Hoochie Coochie Man" (originally titled "I'm Your Hoochie Cooche Man") is a blues standard written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954. The song makes reference to hoodoo folk magic elements and makes novel use of a stop-time musical arrangement. It became one of Waters' most popular and identifiable songs and helped secure Dixon's role as Chess Records' chief songwriter.
The song is a classic of Chicago blues and one of Waters' first recordings with a full backing band. Dixon's lyrics build on Waters' earlier use of braggadocio and themes of fortune and sex appeal. The stop-time riff was "soon absorbed into the lingua franca of blues, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll", according to musicologist Robert Palmer, and is used in several popular songs. When Bo Diddley adapted it for "I'm a Man", it became one of the most recognizable musical phrases in blues.
After the song's initial success in 1954, Waters recorded several live and new studio versions. The original appears on the 1958 The Best of Muddy Waters album and many compilations. Numerous musicians have recorded "Hoochie Coochie Man" in a variety of styles, making it one of the most interpreted Waters and Dixon songs. The Blues Foundation and the Grammy Hall of Fame recognize the song for its influence in popular music and the US Library of Congress' National Recording Registry selected it for preservation in 2004.I'm Ready (blues song)
"I'm Ready" is a blues song written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954. It was a hit, spending nine weeks on the Billboard R&B chart where it reached number four. Since then, "I'm Ready" has been recorded by numerous blues and other artists.I Ain't Superstitious
"I Ain't Superstitious" is a song written by bluesman Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1961. It recounts various superstitions, including that of a black cat crossing the pathway. The song has been recorded by a number of artists, including Jeff Beck, whose version has been acknowledged by Rolling Stone magazine.I Can't Hold Out
"I Can't Hold Out", also known as "Talk to Me Baby", is a blues song written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Elmore James in 1960. Called a classic and a "popular James standard", it has been interpreted and recorded by a variety of artists.I Can't Quit You Baby
"I Can't Quit You Baby" is a blues standard written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Chicago blues artist Otis Rush in 1956. It was Rush's first recording and became a record chart hit. The song, a slow twelve-bar blues, has been recorded by various artists, including Led Zeppelin, who included it on their debut album.I Just Want to Make Love to You
"I Just Want to Make Love to You" is a 1954 blues song written by Willie Dixon, first recorded by Muddy Waters, and released as "Just Make Love to Me". The song reached number four on Billboard magazine's R&B Best Sellers chart.Backing Waters on vocals are Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums. Waters recorded the song again for the album Electric Mud (1968).Little Red Rooster
"Little Red Rooster" (or "The Red Rooster" as it was first titled) is a blues standard credited to arranger and songwriter Willie Dixon. The song was first recorded in 1961 by American blues musician Howlin' Wolf in the Chicago blues style. His vocal and slide guitar playing are key elements of the song. It is rooted in the Delta blues tradition and the theme is derived from folklore. Musical antecedents to "Little Red Rooster" appear in earlier songs by blues artists Charlie Patton and Memphis Minnie.
A variety of musicians have interpreted and recorded "Little Red Rooster". Some add new words and instrumentation to mimic the sounds of animals mentioned in the lyrics. American soul music singer Sam Cooke adapted the song using a more uptempo approach and it became a successful single on both the US rhythm and blues and pop record charts in 1963. Concurrently, Dixon and Howlin' Wolf toured the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival and helped popularize Chicago blues with local rock musicians overseas.
The Rolling Stones were among the first British rock groups to record modern electric blues songs. In 1964, they recorded "Little Red Rooster" with original member Brian Jones, a key player in the recording. Their rendition, which remains closer to the original arrangement than Cooke's, became a number one record in the UK and continues to be the only blues song to reach the top of the British chart. The Stones frequently performed it on television and in concert and released several live recordings of the song. "Little Red Rooster" continues to be performed and recorded, making it one of Willie Dixon's best-known compositions.My Babe
"My Babe" is a Chicago blues song and a blues standard written by Willie Dixon for Little Walter. Released in 1955 on Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records, the song was the only Dixon composition ever to become a number one R&B single and it was one of the biggest hits of either of their careers.Pretty Thing
"Pretty Thing" is a 1955 song written by Chess Records bassist-songwriter Willie Dixon and originally performed by Bo Diddley. The song was Diddley's third single release through Checker Records after "Diddley Daddy". In 1963, the song was released in the United Kingdom where it became Diddley's first of only two songs appearing on the UK Singles Chart, the other single being "Hey Good Lookin'".Spoonful
"Spoonful" is a blues song written by Willie Dixon and first recorded in 1960 by Howlin' Wolf. Called "a stark and haunting work", it is one of Dixon's best known and most interpreted songs. Etta James had a pop and R&B record chart hit with "Spoonful" in 1961, and it was popularized in the late 1960s by the British rock group Cream.The Seventh Son
"The Seventh Son" (also listed as "Seventh Son") is a rhythm and blues song written by Willie Dixon. The title refers to the seventh son of a seventh son of folklore, which Dixon referenced previously in his "Hoochie Coochie Man". In 1955, Willie Mabon was the first to record it, which was released as a single by Chess Records. Johnny Rivers recorded the song as the lead track for his album Meanwhile Back at the Whisky à Go Go (1965), which was also one of his most popular singles.Wang Dang Doodle
"Wang Dang Doodle" is a blues song written by Willie Dixon. Music critic Mike Rowe calls it a party song in an urban style with its massive, rolling, exciting beat. It was first recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1960 and released by Chess Records in 1961. In 1965, Dixon and Leonard Chess persuaded Koko Taylor to record it for Checker Records, a Chess subsidiary. Taylor's rendition quickly became a hit, reaching number thirteen on the Billboard R&B chart and number 58 on the pop chart. "Wang Dang Doodle" became a blues standard and has been recorded by various artists.You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover
"You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover" is a 1962 song by rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley. Written by Willie Dixon, the song was one of Diddley's last record chart hits. Unlike many of his well-known songs, "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover" does not rely on the Bo Diddley beat. A variety of rock and other performers have recorded renditions of the song.You Shook Me
"You Shook Me" is a 1962 blues song recorded by Chicago blues artist Muddy Waters. It features his vocal in unison with a slide-guitar melody by Earl Hooker. "You Shook Me" became one of Muddy Waters' most successful early-1960s singles and has been interpreted by several blues and rock artists.
(Ahmet Ertegun Award)