YOU'RE MISSING: Willie Dixon
- Article by: Casey Stohrer
- Posted: 09/06/2012
Willie Dixon wrote every blues song you've ever heard.
That's an exaggeration, but exaggeration is a key tool in songwriting and storytelling. It doesn't matter what the tangible facts are in a good song, as long as the feeling comes through as honest as possible. Willie's strange and extraordinary life is not unlike the other musicians of his day and age, when rock 'n’ roll was still in its incubation phase. The life preceding the man who was responsible for writing “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You” definitely tells the story of a man's ascent to legendary status. All the shadowy details of his story can be found in his music, but you have to listen closely to understand it.
Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Miss. in 1915, the seventh of 14 children. The “seventh son” concept is typical fare for old blues songs, so that set the pace for his destiny already. His mother was said to have had a habit of rhyming phrases as she talked, something that Willie picked up at an early age. His first introductions to blues music came from local musicians, gospel groups, and fellow inmates when he served some prison time as a teenager. He also wrote poetry, which later turned into songs.
He left home to go to Chicago in 1936. He was a big guy, so he figured he had a future in boxing. He ended up being pretty good – he won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937. He was also Joe Louis' sparring partner for a time until he quit boxing for good; (he had money disputes with his manager.) While at the gym, Willie would often harmonize with fellow musician and boxing fan Leonard Caston. It was Leonard who eventually convinced Willie that he should pursue a career in music. He set Willie up with a tin-can bass, and Willie was hooked. Playing the instrument came easily to him since he had sung bass in a gospel choir as a kid. They started a jazz and blues group called The Five Breezes.
But as World War II was beginning, Willie's musical career seemed to come to a stop. He had been drafted, and when he resisted the draft as a conscientious objector he was thrown in jail for ten months. After he was released, he started another group with Leonard Caston called the Big Three Trio, and they went on to record for Columbia Records.
Another Leonard came along at that time by the name of Chess, and Willie signing on with Chess Records proved to be the real turning point in his musical career. He was slated to be one of Chess's recording artists, but then withdrew from performing and instead handled a lot of behind-the-scenes work for the label. Unlike most bluesmen at the time, Willie had extensive musical knowledge and knew how to read, write, compose and arrange music. He proved to be an indispensable asset to Chess -- he was everything from a producer to songwriter to talent scout and session musician.
Willie had a knack for writing familiar down-home blues music that retained the sort of catchy pop dynamics that really sold records. He became one of the most prominent figures in the creation of the Chicago blues style, what with his incredibly extensive repertoire. He worked with more major blues and rock artists than you could shake a stick at, (e.g. Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor) -- not to mention the American and British rock bands who later made his songs even more famous. When you have the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Yardbirds, The Doors, The Allman Brothers Band and Aerosmith covering your songs, you're most likely a damn good songwriter.
Later on, after he wrote every good blues and rock song that ever existed, Willie set up the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to help out blues musicians who were exploited and ripped off in the past with royalties and copyrights. He firmly believed in the importance of roots music, and worked extremely hard throughout his life to preserve it. He once said, “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.” He died in Burbank, Calif. in 1992 from heart failure at age 76.
While he didn't write every influential blues song, he certainly created the bulk of what brought the blues to its ultimate destiny – rock 'n’ roll. If you were to ask anybody to name the first blues song that comes to mind, there's a good chance they'll start humming that ballsy, driving da-DA-da-da-DA riff that characterizes so many Muddy Waters songs. It's a kind of simplicity that many blues and rock musicians strive for, but only Willie Dixon could command.
Willie Dixon - "Hoochie Coochie Man"