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Willie Dixon
Birth name William James Dixon
Born July 1, 1915(1915-07-01)
Vicksburg, Mississippi
United States
Died January 29, 1992 (aged 76)
Burbank, California
United States
Genres Blues, rock and roll, Chicago blues, Jump blues
Occupations Musician, Songwriter, Arranger, Producer, Boxer
Instruments Double bass, guitar
Labels Chess, Columbia, Bluesville, Checker, Verve, MCA, Legacy, Columbia

William James "Willie" Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was a American blues double-bassist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and record producer.[1] His songs, including "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.[2] Next to Muddy Waters, he was the most influential person in shaping the post World War II sound of the Chicago blues.[3] He also was an important link between the blues and rock and roll, working with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the late 1950s, and his songs were covered by some of the biggest artists of the more recent times, including Bob Dylan, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Foghat, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, Queen, The Doors, The Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead,[3] and a posthumous duet with Colin James.



Early life

Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915.[1] His mother Daisy often rhymed the things she said, a habit Dixon imitated. At the age of 7, he became an admirer of a band that featured pianist Little Brother Montgomery. Dixon was first introduced to blues when he served time on prison farms in Mississippi as an early-teenager. He learned how to sing harmony as a teen as well, 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 into songs, and even sold some of them to local music groups.

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.[4] 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 "Baby Doo" 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. He also learned the guitar.


Dixon began performing around Chicago and with Baby Doo, helped to form the Five Breezes, a group that blended blues, jazz, and vocal harmonies. Dixon's progress in learning to play the bass was interrupted when he resisted the draft during World War II as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for ten months.[1] After the war, he formed the group 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 and became more involved with the record 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 the Chess label was sometimes strained, although his tenure there covered the years from 1948 to the early 1960s. During this time his 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.[5] He later recorded on Bluesville Records.[6] From the late 1960s until the middle 1070s, 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.[7]

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, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, Jimmy Rogers, and others. His double bass playing was of a high standard. He appears on many of Chuck Berry's early recordings, further proving his linkage between the blues and the birth of rock and roll.

Dixon is remembered mainly as a songwriter; his most enduring gift to the blues lay in refurbishing archaic Southern motifs, often of magic and country folkways and often derived from earlier records such as those by Charlie Patton, in contemporary arrangements, to produce songs with both the sinew of the blues, and the agility of pop.[8] British R&B bands of the 1960s constantly drew on the Dixon songbook for inspiration.[8] In December 1964, The Rolling Stones reached #1 in the UK Singles Chart with their cover version of Dixon's "Little Red Rooster".[9 ]

In addition, as his songwriting and production work started to take a backseat, his organisational ability was utilised to put together all-star, Chicago-based blues ensembles for work in Europe.[8]

In his later years, Willie Dixon became a tireless ambassador for the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation. The organization works to preserve the blues’ legacy 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 put it like this: "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."

His health deteriorated in the 1970s and 1980s, due to long-term diabetes and eventually his leg had to be amputated.[1] Dixon was inducted at the inaugural session of the Blues Foundation's ceremony, and into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.[10] He was also awarded a Grammy Award in 1989 for his album, Hidden Charms.[11]

Death and legacy

Dixon died of heart failure[12] in Burbank, California on January 29, 1992,[1] and was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. Dixon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "early influences" (pre-rock) category in 1994.[13]

Actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer portrayed Dixon in Cadillac Records, a 2008 film based on the early history of Chess Records.[14][15]

Willie Dixon's grandson, Alex Dixon, recently recorded two Willie Dixon songs, ("Spoonful" and "Down in the Bottom"), on his latest release titled Rising from the Bushes.[1]


He wrote many famous blues songs, usually producing and playing double bass when they were first recorded. His work was covered by a varied range of artists, from the blues, to modern-day rock music practitioners. Notable Dixon songs and covers include:



Year Title Label Number Comments
1959 Willie's Blues Bluesville BVLP-1003 with Memphis Slim
1960 Blues Every Which Way Verve MGV-3007 with Memphis Slim[18]
1960 Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon Folkways FW-2385 [19]
1962 Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon at the Village Gate Folkways FA-2386 live, with guest 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
1971 Willie Dixon's Peace? Yambo 777-15 with the Chicago All Stars
1973 Catalyst Ovation OVQD-1433 quadraphonic pressing
1976 What Happened To My Blues Ovation OV-1705
1983 Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane Pausa Records 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 from 1947–1952
1995 The Original Wang Dang Doodle: The Chess Recordings MCA 9353 compilation (some unreleased) from 1954–1990
1996 Crying the Blues: Live in Concert Thunderbolt CDTB-166 live with Johnny Winter & 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)

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Allmusic biography - accessed February 2008
  2. ^ Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. McFarland. p. 87. ISBN 0786406062
  3. ^ a b Trager, Oliver (2004). Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Billboard Books. pp. 298–299. ISBN 0823079740
  4. ^ Snowden, Don (1997).
  5. ^ Dixon, Willie; Snowden, Don (1989). I Am the Blues. Da Capo Press. pp. 103–112. ISBN 0306804158.  
  6. ^ "Prestiage Bluesville discography". Retrieved 2006-11-17.  
  7. ^ Dixon, Willie; Snowden, Don (1989). I Am the Blues. Da Capo Press. p. 244. ISBN 0306804158.  
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. pp. 107. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.  
  9. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. pp. 458. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.  
  10. ^ "1980 Hall of Fame Inductees". Blues Foundation. Retrieved on February 17, 2008.
  11. ^ "Willie Dixon Timeline". Chicago: Blues Heaven Foundation. 2007. Retrieved 2009-07-18.  
  12. ^ a b c Dead Rock Stars Club entry - accessed February 2008
  13. ^ Rule, Sheila (January 20, 1994). "Rock Greats Hail, Hail Their Own At Spirited Hall of Fame Ceremony". The New York Times. Retrieved on February 17, 2008.
  14. ^ Brody, Wright join musical Chess club
  15. ^ Alessandro Nivola to play blues mogul in "Chess"
  16. ^ - accessed October 2009
  17. ^ (Magic Slim) - accessed October 2009
  18. ^ "Verve Records Discography: 1960". Retrieved January 1, 2010.  
  19. ^ "Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon". Smithsonian Folkways. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved January 1, 2010.  

Further reading and listening

  • Dixon, Willie; & Snowden, Don (1990). I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-7043-0253-5
  • Dixon, Willie (1992). Willie Dixon - Master Blues Composer: With Notes and Tablature. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-7935-0305-1
  • Dixon, Willie (2003). I Am The Blues. (DVD)
  • 1997 The Chess Box Snowden, Don "Willie Dixon" [CD booklet]. MCA Records, Inc.

External links

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