Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon’s life was a symbol of the evolution of blues from an accidental creation by descendants of slaves to a vital and recognized part of America’s musical history. Dixon was among the first professional blues musicians to be able to receive a substantial, tangible benefit. His struggle to achieve this made him an important symbol for the injustices that still plague the music industry at the end of 20th century. He was a producer, songwriter and singer who helped Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf find their best commercially-recognized voices. Dixon began writing songs as a teenager and sold copies to local bands. Dixon also learned harmony singing from Theo Phelps (a local carpenter). Dixon joined the Union Jubilee Singers group, which was led by Phelps. Dixon also sang bass. They were frequently heard on local radio. Dixon made it to Chicago where he won Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship. Although he might have been a great boxer, Dixon turned to music after meeting Leonard “Baby Doo”, a guitarist who saw Dixon at the gym and sometimes sang with him. They formed a duo and Dixon later took up the bass. The Five Breezes formed later and recorded for Bluebird. However, the group’s success was stopped when Dixon refused to be inducted into the Armed Forces as a Conscientious Obstructor. After a year, Dixon was finally released and formed the Four Jumps of Jive. Dixon, along with Caston, was working again in 1945 with a group called The Big Three Trio with guitarist Bernardo Dennis (later, replaced by Ollie Crawford). Dixon was a regular bassist for late-night jam sessions that featured members of the blues community including Muddy Waters. The Chess brothers, who owned the club where Dixon played, started a new record label called Aristocrat (later Chess). They hired Dixon initially to be a bassist for a 1948 session of Robert Nighthawk. He was a favorite of the Chess siblings, as well as his ability to songwriter and arrange. He worked regularly for the Chess Brothers over the next two-years. While Dixon did record some of his own material at these sessions, he was rarely featured as an artist. Dixon was first recognized as a songwriter when he recorded “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters. Dixon was a songwriter who became well-known for his singles “Evil” by Howlin Wolf and “My Babe”, by Little Walter. The Chess brothers continued to push Dixon’s songs on their artists. Dixon was also a bassist and record manager for many Chess label recording sessions, including those of Lowell Fulson and Bo Diddley. Dixon received very little remuneration, even for songwriting. He was barely able support his family with the 100 dollars per week the Chess brothers gave him. A brief stint at the Cobra label in the late ’50s did not help. In the middle of the 1960s, Chess began to phase out Dixon’s work as a bass player and switched to electric bass. This led to him being less present at many sessions. Horst Lippmann, a European concert promoter, had also started a series called American Folk-Blues Festival. He would bring top blues musicians from America to the continent. For the first ten years, Dixon organized the musical aspects of the shows. He also recorded his own music and earned a lot more than he was making from his Chess work. He noticed a growing interest from British rock bands in Dixon’s songwriting, and he was even compelled to present his new songs to their managers when he visited England. Dixon’s songs were still being performed at Chess by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor. Koko Taylor had her own hit, “Wang Dang Doodle.” However, Dixon’s relationship with Chess Records began to unravel gradually after the mid-’60s. Partly, this was due to time. The label lost many of its older artists, including Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Also, the company’s attempts to experiment with rock-oriented sounds, especially on the “Cadet Concept”, took the company’s output in a direction that Dixon could not contribute. The company was sold in 1969, and Leonard Chess died. Dixon’s relationship with the company ended. Dixon wanted to return to performing after his career as a producer had been cut short by Chess’s death in the fall of 1969. He recorded I Am the Blues, one of his most well-known songs. Dixon also organized the Chicago Blues All Stars touring band to perform in Europe. In his 50s, Dixon made a name for himself on stage for the first times in his professional career. Dixon started to doubt the validity of his songwriting contract with Chess Publishing’s publishing arm Arc Music. Despite the fact that he was recording hit songs like “Spoonful” from Cream, Dixon was not making much money songwriting. Although he had never been paid as much as he was entitled as a songwriter he realized how little he was getting from songwriting. Led Zeppelin II Arc Music sued Led Zeppelin over copyright infringement for “Bring It on Home” on Led Zeppelin II. Dixon claimed that the song was his. Dixon did not see any of the settlement until his manager audited Arc’s accounts. Dixon and Muddy would file suit against Arc Music later to recover their royalties and copyrights. Dixon also sued Led Zeppelin many years later for copyright infringement regarding “Whole Lotta Love” as well as its similarity to Dixon’s song “You Need Love”. Both cases led to out-of court settlements that were generous for the songwriter. In the 1980s, Dixon was the last survivor in the Chess Blues stable. He began working with different organizations to secure song copyrights for blues songwriters who had, like him, been deprived of income during the previous decades. MCA Records’ 1988 release of Willie Dixon: Chess Box honored Dixon as the first producer/songwriter with a boxed set. It featured rare Dixon sides and the most well-known recordings of Dixon songs by Chess’ celebrities. Dixon published I Am the Blues (Da Capo Press) his autobiography in the following year. It was written with Don Snowden. Dixon performed and was called upon to produce soundtracks for movies such as Gingerale Afternoon or La Bamba. He also produced the work of Bo Diddley. Dixon was considered an elder statesman and composer, as well as a spokesperson for American blues. Dixon began to experience declining health and eventually lost one leg to diabetes. He passed away peacefully in his sleep in 1992.

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