|Birth name||William James Dixon|
|Born||July 1 1915
Vicksburg, Mississippi, United States
|Origin||Chicago, Illinois, United States|
|Died||January 29 1992 (aged 76)
Burbank, California, United States
|Instrument(s)||Double bass, guitar|
William James "Willie" Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was an American blues singer-songwriter, many of whose songs became classics of the Chicago blues genre and were later covered by major rock and roll artists. He was also a noted bassist, arranger, and record producer for Chicago's premier blues label, Chess Records, in its heyday during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Dixon wrote such blues hits as "Little Red Rooster," "Big Boss Man," "Spoonful," "Back Door Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "My Babe," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Bring It on Home." His songs were performed by blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter. He also influenced a generation of younger musicians who later recorded his songs, including Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, The Doors, The Animals, Bob Dylan, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead and many others.
Dixon also formed a direct link between the blues and rock and roll by working with rock artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in their early years. Next to Muddy Waters, he is considered the most influential shaper of the post-World War II sound of the Chicago blues and is thought by some to be the most important blues songwriter in history.
Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915. His mother, Daisy, often created rhymes during casual conversation, a habit Dixon learned to imitate. At the age of seven, he became an admirer of a band that featured blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery. Dixon was further introduced to the blues when he served time on prison farms in Mississippi as an early-teenager. He also learned how to sing harmony from a local carpenter named Leo Phelps. Dixon sang bass in Phelps' group, the Jubilee Singers, a local gospel quartet that regularly appeared on the Vicksburg radio station WQBC. Around this time Dixon began experimenting with songwriting by adapting poems he had written into songs, and was even able to sell some of them to local music groups.
Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936. A man of impressive stature at 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing. He showed considerable talent in the sport, winning the Illinois State Golden Gloves heavyweight championship (novice division) in 1937. Dixon then turned professional as a boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis' sparring partner. After four pro fights, however, he abandoned the boxing business due to a quarrel with his manager over a question of money.
At the boxing gym, Dixon was met by fellow singer Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston, who helped him become serious about music as a career. Dixon sang in several vocal groups in Chicago, and Caston built him his first bass, made of a tin can and one string. Dixon also learned the guitar.
In Chicago, Dixon and Caston helped form the Five Breezes, a group that blended blues and jazz, emphasizing vocal harmonies. Dixon's progress in learning to play the bass was halted when he was imprisoned for ten months after resisting the draft during World War II. After the war, he briefly formed the Four Jumps of Jive and then reunited with Caston to create the Big Three Trio, which went on to record briefly for Columbia Records.
Dixon first signed with Chess Records in 1948 as a recording artist, but soon began working at the label as a producer and arranger. By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer, talent scout, session musician on the bass, arranger, and staff songwriter. Although his relationship with the label was sometimes strained, he remained with Chess through the early 1960s. During this time his output and influence was prodigious.
The artists with whom Dixon worked reads like a Who's Who of the Chicago blues world, including such greats as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy, and Washboard Sam. He also appears on many of Chuck Berry's early recordings and worked with Bo Diddley during the same period, forming a direct link between blues and early rock and roll.
Dixon had a unique gift for refurbishing traditional blues motifs. Even though many of his songs follow traditional 12-bar blues patterns, they are highly varied and rarely monotonous, featuring memorable "hooks" and bridges, demonstrating his sophistication as an arranger, yet remaining true to the authentic blues form. He also showed a flare as a lyricist, from the party chatter of "Wang Dang Doogle" to the humorous complaint of "Big Boss Man" and the melancholy lament of a man plagued by sexual impotence in "Little Red Rooster." So successful was his songwriting career that it was hardly an exaggeration when he boasted "I am the blues!"
In the early 1960s, many of the young blues-oriented groups in Britain began playing and recording Dixon's songs. In December 1964, The Rolling Stones reached number one on the UK Singles Chart with their cover version of "Little Red Rooster." Cream, The Animals, and Eric Clapton also covered many of his songs. In the US, The Doors had a hit with his "Back Door Man," a song originally written for Howlin' Wolf. The Lovin' Spoonful took their name from the Dixon song "Spoonful," which likewise had been a hit for Wolf. Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart" was also penned by Dixon, as was Captain Beefheart's "Ditty Wah Ditty."
In the late 1960s, as the blues revival reached full swing, Dixon put together several all-star Chicago-based blues ensembles for work in Europe. He also had a modest success as a performing artist himself as he played at folk venues and blues festivals throughout the US and Europe, often performing with pianist Memphis Slim. His health deteriorated in the 1970s and 1980s due to long-term diabetes, and one leg eventually had to be amputated.
Dixon died of heart failure in Burbank, California on January 29, 1992, at 77 years of age, and was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Willie Dixon is considered by many to be the greatest blues songwriter in history. Together with Muddy Waters and other Chicago bluesmen, he was one of the main creators of the Chicago blues sound which interpreted Mississippi Delta blues in an urban setting in the context of the contemporary R & B market of the time.
Dixon was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 at its inaugural session. He also won a Grammy Award in 1989 for his album, Hidden Charms. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "early influences" (pre-rock) category in 1994. His song "Hoochie Coochie Man" is listed among Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Dixon's work was covered by a varied range of artists, from the blues and jazz to modern day rock music and R & B practitioners. In addition to his classic blues hits, he was also the composer of such popular classics as "Pain In My Heart" (Otis Redding), "Diddy Wah Diddy" (Captain Beefheart), "The Seventh Son" (Mose Allison), and "You Can't Judge A Book By Looking At Its Cover" (Bo Diddley). Led Zeppelin's hit "Whole Lotta Love" and was based on Dixon's "You Need Love," and the Righteous' Brothers' "My Babe" was a remake of the Dixon song of the same name, which had been a hit for Little Walter.
Actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer portrayed Dixon in the 2008 feature film Cadillac Records, based on the life of Leonard Chess and featuring Beyoncé as Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters.
Dixon wrote many famous blues songs for the great artists of the Chicago blues genre, often producing the records and playing double bass when they were first recorded. Many of his songs were later covered by second-generation blues and rock artists. Some of his better known songs include:
All links retrieved August 21, 2013.
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