Dixon, Willie (James)

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Dixon, Willie (James)

Dixon, Willie (James), American blues songwriter, bass player, and singer; b. Vicksburg, Miss., July 1, 1915; d. L.A., Jan. 29, 1992. Primarily known as a songwriter, Dixon helped to shape the recordings of a host of notable blues musicians, among them Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, not only by writing the songs they sang but also by producing, arranging, and playing bass on their sessions for Chess Records and other labels. Nevertheless, it was Dixon’s catalog of blues songs, including “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “The Seventh Son/7 and “Wang Dang Doodle,” that became a basic repertoire for blues-based rock ’n’ roll performers and made him a major influence on popular music from the 1950s on.

Dixon was the illegitimate son of Daisy McKenzie Dixon and, probably, Anderson “A. D.” Bell. Between the ages of about 11 to 21, he wandered around the country, working at manual labor. He also wrote songs, and he became the bass singer in the Union Jubilee Singers, a gospel group that performed on local radio in Vicksburg in the early 1930s. He moved to Chicago in 1936 and was a professional boxer for a time. Around 1939 he learned to play bass and became a member of the group the Five Breezes, with whom he made his recording debut for Bluebird Records in November 1940. After Pearl Harbor he refused induction into the military, claiming conscientious-objector status, and spent a year dealing with the resulting legal complications. Around 1942 he formed The Four Jumps of Joy, who recorded for Mercury Records in 1945. In 1946 he formed The Big Three Trio, which also featured Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston on piano and Bernardo Dennis (later replaced by Ollie Crawford) on guitar. This group began recording for Columbia Records in 1947 and scored a Top Ten R&B hit in April 1948 with “You Sure Look Good to Me” (music and lyrics by Art Tatum and Joe Turner).

Dixon began working as a sideman on recording sessions during the second half of the 1940s. In November 1948 he played his first session for Aristocrat Records, which became Chess Records in 1950. By the end of the 1940s he had entered into a common-law marriage with Elenora Franklin, who bore him seven children. The Big Three Trio broke up after its final recording session in December 1952, and Dixon went to work at Chess as a salaried employee. He scored his first major success as a writer with Eddie Boyd’s recording of “Third Degree” (music and lyrics also by Boyd), a Top Ten R&B hit in July 1953. Muddy Waters enjoyed the biggest hit of his career with Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” which reached the R&B Top Ten in March 1954, followed into the Top Ten by Waters recordings of “Just Make Love to Me” (aka “I Just Want to Make Love to You”) in June and “Fm Ready” in October. Dixon also began to write for Howlin’ Wolf, penning “Evil,” which the singer first recorded in May.

Dixon’s most successful composition of 1955 was “My Babe,” recorded by Little Walter and His Jukes (including Dixon on bass), which topped the R&B charts in April 1955. Though Dixon’s own recording career was generally neglected during this period, his recording of his own “Walking the Blues” made the R&B Top Ten in September, along with an equally successful version by Jack Dupree and Mr. Bear. Another notable Dixon composition in 1955 was “The Seventh Son,” initially recorded by Willie Mabon. In the mid-1950s, Dixon separated from his first common-law wife and began living with a second, Marie Booker, with whom he had five children.

Bo Diddley hit the R&B Top Ten in January 1956 with Dixon’s “Pretty Thing”; Muddy Waters reached the R&B Top Ten in September with his “Don’t Go No Farther.” Dixon moved from Chess to Cobra Records, where he scored a Top Ten R&B hit with Otis Rush’s recording of his “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” in October. Starting in the late 1950s, Dixon’s songs began to be recorded by rock ’n’ roll performers. Elvis Presley cut “Doncha’ Think It’s Time” (music and lyrics also by Clyde Otis) for a Top Ten R&B hit and a Top 40 pop hit in May 1958, and Ricky Nelson revived “My Babe” on his Top Ten Ricky Nelson album in July 1958. In October, Muddy Waters had a Top Ten R&B hit back at Chess with Dixon’s “Close to You.”

Upon the demise of Cobra Records, Dixon formed a duo with blues pianist and singer Memphis Slim. They toured together and recorded a series of albums: Willie’s Blues (1959) for Prestige/Bluesville; Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon (1959) and At the Village Gate (1960) for Folkways; and The Blues Every Which Way (1960) for Verve. Dixon went back to work at Chess, where he had a series of memorable songs recorded by Howlin’ Wolf: “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful,” and “Wang Dang Doodle” in 1960; and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “You’ll Be Mine” in 1961. “Spoonful” was also recorded at Chess by Etta (James) and Harvey (Fuqua), and their version reached the Top 40 of the R&B charts and was a pop chart entry in December 1960. Bo Diddley entered the pop charts and the Top 40 of the R&B charts with Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” in August 1962, and the same year Muddy Waters recorded the notable Dixon compositions “You Need Love” and “You Shook Me” (music and lyrics also by J. B. Lenoir).

Dixon participated in the annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe from 1962 to 1964, helping to spread the popularity of blues music. From this point on, both in the U.S. and the U.K., popular musicians began to revive Dixon’s songs in earnest. Peter, Paul, and Mary reached the pop charts in December 1962 with “Big Boat,” a Dixon composition recorded by the Big Three Trio in 1951 as “Tell That Woman.” In January 1963, Sonny Boy Williamson recorded Dixon’s “Bring It on Home.” The Righteous Brothers revived “My Babe” for a pop chart entry in September 1963, and in November Sam Cooke revived “Little Red Rooster” for a Top Ten R&B hit and a Top 40 pop hit. Dion revived “Fm Your Hoochie Coochie Man” for a pop chart entry in February 1964, and The Rolling Stones revived two Dixon songs: “I Just Want to Make Love to You” appeared on their gold-selling U.S. debut album, England’s Newest Hit Makers in May (the chart-topping British equivalent, The Rolling Stones, had been released in April); and “Little Red Rooster” became a #1 hit in the U.K. in December, later appearing on the gold, Top Ten U.S. album The Rolling Stones, Now! in February 1965.

Johnny Rivers reached the pop Top Ten in June 1965 with a revival of “The Seventh Son.” Dixon produced and sang backup vocals on Koko Taylor’s revival of “Wang Dang Doodle” on the Chess subsidiary Checker Records; it reached the R&B Top Ten and the pop Top 40 in the spring of 1966. That August, Jimmy Smith reached the R&B and pop charts with his revival of “Fm Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” The Doors’ self-titled debut album, a multiplatinum Top Ten hit released in January 1967, featured their rendition of “Back Door Man.” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” turned up on the gold, Top Ten self-titled debut album by Steppenwolf in February 1968, and in June, Cream put “Spoonful” on its chart-topping gold album Wheels of Fire.

Two Dixon compositions, “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” and “You Shook Me,” were on the Top Ten, multiplatinum self-titled debut album by Led Zeppelin, released in January 1969. Howlin’ Wolf’s revival of “Evil” made the R&B charts in April. Jose Feliciano put “Little Red Rooster” on his gold Feliciano/10 to 23 album, released in June. The multiplatinum, chart-topping Led Zeppelin II, released in October, featured “Bring It on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love,” which bore a similarity to Dixon’s “You Need Love”; the latter also became a Top Ten gold single. Neither song was credited to Dixon, however, and legal action, leading to financial settlements, followed. Also in October, Willie Mitchell revived “My Babe” for an R&B Top 40 hit, and the following month Elvis Presley covered the same song on his gold From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis album.

Chess Records was sold to the tape manufacturer GRT in January 1969, after which Dixon’s involvement with the label ended. He formed a touring group, the Chicago Blues All-Stars, and recorded an album of his best-known songs, I Am the Blues, released in 1970. He also started his own record label, Yambo, which released his next album, Peace, in 1971. He then cut Maestro Willie Dixon and His Chicago Blues Band for Spivey Records and Catalyst for Ovation, both of which were released in 1973; the latter earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording.

Meanwhile, Dixon’s songs continued to attract popular covers. Humble Pie put “Fm Ready” on their gold PerformanceRockin’ the Fillmore album, released in October 1971, and Foghat reached the charts with a revival of “I Just Want to Make Love to You” in October 1972. The Pointer Sisters scored a Top 40 R&B hit and a pop chart entry with their revival of “Wang Dang Doodle” in December 1973.

Dixon released a second album on Ovation, What’s Happened to My Blues?, in 1976, and it earned him a second Grammy nomination for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording. During 1977 he was hospitalized, suffering from diabetes, and one of his legs was amputated. Foghat reached the Top 40 in October with a live version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You.”

Dixon returned to performing, and his appearance at Chicagofest in 1981 brought him a third Grammy nomi-nation for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for the various-artists album Blues Deluxe. In 1983 he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and the show was recorded by Pausa Records for the 1985 album Live! Backstage Access, which was a Grammy nominee for Best Traditional Blues Recording. The label had also released his April 1984 album Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane. Meanwhile, other musicians, from purveyors of country to heavy metal, continued to mine Dixon’s catalog: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble covered “You’ll Be Mine” on their platinum Soul to Soul album in September 1985 and “Let Me Love You Baby” (originally recorded by Koko Taylor) on their multiplatinum In Step Ibum in June 1989 (Buddy Guy also put the latter on his gold Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues album in October 1991); Hank Williams Jr. sang “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” on his Montana Café album in July 1986; “I Ain’t Superstitious” was on Megadeath’s platinum Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? George Thorogood performed “Fm Ready” on his gold Born to be Bad album in January 1988.

Dixon signed to the Capitol Records subsidiary Bug and released Hidden Charms in September 1988; it won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Recording. He was nominated for the same award the following year for his final album, the soundtrack to the film Ginger Ale Afternoon, released by Varese Sarabande. He died at 76 in 1992 of heart failure. But his songs continued to be influential: in September 1994, Eric Clapton put three Dixon songs—”Fm Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Third Degree,” and “Groaning the Blues”—on his all-blues album From the Cradle, which topped the charts and went multiplatinum.


With D. Snowden, I Am the Blues: The W. D. Story (London, 1989).

—William Ruhlmann