On this date in 1992, while America's teens came to grips with grunge, and the NY Giants celebrated their recent Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills, in Burbank California, at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, a one legged, diabetic old black man passed away.
Very few people working in the hospital probably realized that the man, whose musical influence was still felt daily on rock radio, was one of the most important blues musicians, if not musician of any genre in the post World War II era.
Born one of 14 children in 1915 in poverty outside of rural Vicksburg, Mississippi, his life was a story of fights & skirmishes. A man who'd once been Joe Louis' sparring partner, and a 1937 Golden Gloves Boxing Champion. He also fought against the US Army and served a year in jail in 1941 for his conscientious objection to the draft in WWII. He was escorted by Military Police off the stage of Chicago's Pink Poodle Club.
But he prevailed after his release, parlayed his talents into some gigs, record deals, and eventually became a man who'd written and recorded so many songs, they numbered well over 500. By the time of his death, his publishing catalog rights alone were worth well over an estimated 10 million dollars.
That man was Willie Dixon...
He may have seemed a background figure during his peak productivity period of the 1950s & early 60's, merely backing up other performers, but Willie Dixon had a plan. He was always working, playing bass, writing and producing sessions, and through it all, he is considered the driving force in what's known as the "Chicago Blues sound", particularly that on Chess Records, and later for Cobra. Artists who relied on his skills for their successes include Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, Memphis Slim, Otis Rush, Little Walter, Buddy Guy and many others. While the Chess brothers may have owned the studio at 2120 S. Michigan ave in Chicago, one must wonder how thriving of an enterprise would it have been without Willie Dixon's creative genius?
His bass playing laid the foundations of so many blues & rock songs it's impossible to calculate the depths of his influence and his role as an architect of the blues & rock idioms. So many of his songs went on to become hits for other artists, including a slew of white arena rockers who used his compositions as a solid sound & foundation to further their careers.
In the 1970's, Dixon continued to tour & record, and aside from some occasional work with Chess & Columbia, mostly as a solo act for smaller labels like Yambo and Ovation. He also won the first of several legal fights in 1977 to see the return of copywrites, and publishing monies from his Chess years. In the 1980's he established the Blues Heaven scholarship foundation from his increased royalty funds. His final album "Hidden Charms" was released in 1988 on the indie Bug label, distributed by Capitol. He also released his autobiography, "I Am the Blues" at around that same time in 1989.
In his autobiography, Dixon recounts his saga of becoming one of the first professional blues song-writers to benefit from his craft materially. But he had to fight to do it.
His legacy is an important symbol of the injustices that early writers and recording artists were put through.
Seven years prior to his death, in 1985 he'd won acrimonious litigation & damages, and the right to writing credits, in a dispute that a certain British rock group named Led Zeppelin had stolen his musical ideas for a song they called "Whole Lotta Love" and appropriated them as their own.
Willie Dixon's victory over Zeppelin was just one in a war, and the legal battles did not even end with his death. After he passed, a former manager kept sniping claims at his estate, attempting to secure as much as 33% of Dixon's publishing royalties that he claimed he was due. Finally after many years of contentious court cases, the decision finally rested with Dixon's widow in 1995.
Willie Dixon, a child of the segregated south, eventually had a street named after him in Vicksburg MS, but it was posthumous, much like his election into the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame Hall of Fame.
That doesn't mean he isn't slandered to this day, those who say he was a shrewd bully in the studio who'd steal the collaborative songwriting credits just for himself. Detractors include David Johansen of the NY Dolls who tells a story In the film New York Dolls - All Dolled Up, how Dixon used to offer meals to hungry songwriters newly in Chicago from the Delta in exchange for the rights to their songs. Johansen claims "Hoochie Coochie Man" was one such song and called Dixon "The Vampire of the Blues."
WC Handy was apparently guilty of the same thing, and at least Willie Dixon ddn't build up his reputation by simply sampling his way to the top like so many in the current crop of creeps on the charts...
He's a truly remarkable character... and dead too...
So let's not speak ill alrighty...
Vampire or not... he should be recalled long after "Vampire Weekend" fades from yer cranium...
We think about ye sir, and we salute ya Willie...up there in Blues Heaven.
When in Chicago, be sure to visit the Blues Heaven HQ at 2120 S. Michigan Ave, site of the Chess studios where Willie did some of his most famous studio work...and due to Willie's persistence, it is officially recognized as a protected Chicago Landmark.
Here's a tiny sample of music associated with Willie Dixon:
Before Willie Dixon had his Chess era, he was a member of the Big Three Trio, which formed in 1946.
The groups first big break was backing Rosetta Howard on a recording of her #8 charting hit Ebony Rhapsody in 1948. Even though the recording of this 78 is over 60 years old, you can hear Dixon's thumping bass fairly clearly.
Rosetta Howard - Ebony Rhapsody
Here's a recording the Big 3 Trio did for the Delta Label out of Nashville in the early 50's.
Big Three Trio featuring Willie Dixon - Till The Day I Die
The Big Three Trio
"Till The Day I Die" (mp3)
from "The Best Of Delta Records"
Buy at iTunes Music Store
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Stream from Rhapsody
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More On This Album
Here's a cut from a 1964 Folk Blues tour of Europe where Willie was in the band backing up various Chess blues stars, like Etta James cousin...
Sugar Pie DeSanto + Willie Dixon - Slip In Mules
This next & final track is actually a soundtrack excerpt from an out of print video I've posted below from a 1981 Willie Dixon show. In it, you'll hear some brief interview comments on the Blues by Mr. Dixon, and the song 29 Ways, plus an excerpt of I Think I Have The Blues with an elongated spoken intro from Willie.
Willie Dixon - 29 Ways + I Think I Have The Blues
and the video version for y'all
For more videos of Willie in action, check out this collection:
Historic performances by the aristocracy of American blues, unseen for forty years and never before released, comprise the latest addition to Folk Blues DVDThe American Folk-Blues Festival DVD series. The British Tours 1963-1966.
In this archival footage Willie is seen as part of an all star band backing folks like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Turner. Playing alongside Willie are guys like Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Hubert Sumlin, Sunnyland Slim, Clifton James, Bill Stepney, Otis Rush, Little Brother Montgomery, Jack Myers, Fred Below, Cousin Joe Pleasant.
Here's an 18 track audio collection worth checking out featuring Willie Dixon in conjunction with many of his collaborators...
and have a good day...