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Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon

Born in 1915, Willie Dixon did more to shape Chicago Blues than nearly anyone else besides perhaps Muddy Waters. He was the ultimate all-around blues man, working as a bass player, compser, producer, arranger and bandleader..to name a few. He initially began a career as a boxer, even sparring with Joe Louis, but it only lasted four fights after an altercation with his manager ended his pro career.

In 1939 he formed The Five Breezes which played until 1941 when he was arrested for refusing to serve in the armed forces. During his term and after he got out, he continued writing, playing and producing music all the way until his death in 1992. He was and still is a major influence in his field.

Dixon was an indispensable “behind-the-scenes�� musician in the postwar Chicago blues scene. He was a notable songwriter, and his compositions for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, and Otis Rush became part of their signature repertoires. 

Born: July 1, 1915; Vicksburg, Mississippi Died: January 29, 1992; Burbank, California Also known as: Willie James Dixon (full name) Principal recordings albums: Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, 1959 (with Memphis Slim); Willie’s Blues, 1959; The Blues Every Which Way, 1960 (with Slim); I Am the Blues, 1970; Peace, 1971; Catalyst, 1973; Maestro Willie Dixon and His Chicago Blues Band, 1973; What’s Happened to My Blues?, 1976; Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane, 1983; Hidden Charms, 1988; Ginger Ale Afternoon, 1989. writings of interest: I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story, 1989 (with Don Snowden; autobiography). The Life Willie James Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1915, and as a child he learned from his mother how to rhyme, which became an important tool for his songwriting. His earliest intensive contact with music was with barrelhouse pianist Little Brother Montgomery, and Dixon started writing songs as a teenager.

In 1936 he moved to Chicago, where he became a boxer. In 1940 he and his friend Leonard “Baby Doo�� Caston formed the Five Breezes with three other musicians, and Dixon learned to play bass. In 1941 and 1942 he was involved in a dispute over his refusal to serve in the military, and after the war he resumed musical activity with the Four Jumps of Jive. He reunited with Caston, and they formed the Big Three Trio with Bernardo Dennis (later replaced by Ollie Crawford). Dixon developed his compositional techniques and record production with this group. In 1948, Dixon began his relationship with Aristocrat Records (later Chess Records) as a sideman. After the Big Three Trio broke up in 1953, Dixon became a staff member at Chess Records and also signed a contract as a recording artist for the Chess subsidiary Checker. In 1954 his composition for Muddy Waters, “Hoochie Coochie Man,�� became a big hit. As a vocalist, Dixon had his own hit, “Walking Blues.�� In 1956, because of a financial disagreement with the label owners, Dixon left for the newly founded Cobra Records, but in 1958 he returned to Chess and worked for there until 1971.

In 1977 he sued Arc Music, the publishing company that belonged to Chess Records, to retrieve royalties from and copyrights of his compositions. In 1985 he sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Whole Lotta Love,�� a reworking of his song “You Need Love.�� In 1989 Dixon published his autobiography I Am the Blues. After a period of declining health, complicated by diabetes, Dixon died in 1992. The Music Dixon is best known as a blues songwriter, but he consciously departed from conventional blues. He claimed that Montgomery’s ability to use a variety of musical styles was his most important musical inspiration. Early Works. Montgomery’s influence is seen in Dixon’s compositions for the Big Three Trio. “Signifying Monkey�� is a mixture of folk ballad and jive music, while “My Love Will Never Die�� is in a melodramatic style. Other musical styles Dixon used for compositions for his early groups include country and western, novelty, Tin Pan Alley pop, slow blues, and fast boogie-woogie.

Compositions for Chess Artists. When composing, Dixon did not always follow the simple twelvebar blues pattern. “Hoochie Coochie Man�� is in sixteen-bar form, and “I Just Want to Make Love to You�� is a mixture of the eight-bar form and aaba thirty-two-bar pop-song form. Dixon had a characteristic way of constructing music and words, often using repetition of simple but memorable riffs consisting of two or three pitches as a support for vocal melodies. This musical device sounds similar to the structure ofwork songs that he would have heard as a youngster in the Mississippi Delta. He also had a characteristic way of writing lyrics– that is, listing or cataloging concepts or words that could be similar or opposite in meaning. This can be heard in his songs for Chess artists: “Hoochie Coochie Man,�� “I Just Want to Make Love to You,�� “I’m Ready,�� “Spoonful,�� “Twenty-nine Ways,�� “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,�� and “Wang Dang Doodle.�� Dixon had a remarkable ability to compose songs that effectively capitalized on the assigned artist’s public image. His first experiment was “Third Degree�� for Eddie Boyd in 1953. Then came the 1954 hit “Hoochie Coochie Man�� for Waters, which linked the singer’s machismo with a series of stoptime riffs. In “Back Door Man�� for Wolf, Dixon added riffs in Wolf’s distinctive style to a story about amanwhomeets secretly with other men’s wives.

Dixon’s work shows that his development of the performing personalities of Waters, Wolf, and Taylor was highly relevant to the tradition of the blues as a secular religion. In one analysis, blues performers are considered preachers of an alternative African American religion, one that philosophically opposed organized religious institutions. Dixon defined his blues as an expression of “the true facts of life,�� and he claimed his artistic goal was to express real-life wisdom through his music. Musical Legacy Dixon’s songs were not only Chicago blues classics but also important in the repertoires of such rock artists as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart), and the Doors. Dixon’s work as a sideman, producer, and talent scout should not be underrated. Dixon played bass for many recording sessions of Chess artists, including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. As a producer, he (as well as the label owners) required Berry to revise his debut song, “Maybellene.��

As a talent scout, Dixon organized debut sessions forAlbert King, JuniorWells, and Taylor. Dixon worked as an organizer of the American Folk Blues Festival in 1960 in Europe, which introduced blues to European audiences. In 1982 Dixon established the Blues Heaven Foundation to help musicians retrieve their copyrights, promote an ongoing blues tradition, and educate children. In 1994 his achievements were honored with his induction into the “early influence�� category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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