Willie Dixon Biography

1 July 1915, Vicksburg, Mississippi, USA, d. 29 January 1992, Burbank, California, USA. At an early age Dixon was interested in both words and music, writing lyrics and admiring the playing of Little Brother Montgomery. As an adolescent, Dixon sang bass with local gospel groups, had some confrontation with the law, and hoboed his way to Chicago, where he became a boxer. He entered music professionally after meeting Baby Doo Caston, and together they formed the Five Breezes, whose 1940 recordings blend blues, jazz, pop and the vocal group harmonies of the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. During World War II, Dixon resisted the draft, and was imprisoned for 10 months. After the war, he formed the Four Jumps Of Jive before reuniting with Caston in the Big Three Trio, who toured the Midwest and recorded for Columbia Records. The trio featured vocal harmonies and the jazz-influenced guitar work of Ollie Crawford.

Dixon’s performing activities lessened as his involvement with Chess Records increased. By 1951 he was a full-time employee, as producer, A&R representative, session musician, talent scout, songwriter, and occasionally, name artist. Apart from an interlude when he worked for Cobra in a similar capacity, Dixon remained with Chess until 1971. The relationship, however, was ultimately complex; he was forced to regain control of his copyrights by legal action. Meanwhile, Dixon was largely responsible for the sound of Chicago blues on Chess and Cobra, and of the black rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. He was also used on gospel sessions by Duke/Peacock, and his bass playing was excellent behind Rev. Robert Ballinger. Dixon’s productions of his own songs included Muddy Waters’ ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’, Diddley’s ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’, Otis Rush’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ (a triumph for Dixon’s and Rush’s taste for minor chords), and Koko Taylor’s ‘Wang Dang Doodle’, among many others.

In the early 60s, Dixon teamed up with Memphis Slim to play the folk revival’s notion of blues, and operated as a booking agent and manager, in which role he was crucial to the American Folk Blues Festival Tours of Europe. Many British R&B bands recorded his songs, including the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who adapted ‘You Need Love’. After leaving Chess, Dixon went into independent production with his own labels, Yambo and Spoonful, and resumed a recording and performing career. He also administered the Blues Heaven Foundation, a charity that aimed to promote awareness of the blues, and to rectify the financial injustices of the past. Willie Dixon claimed, ‘I am the blues’; and he was, certainly, hugely important in its history, not only as a great songwriter, but also as a producer, performer and mediator between artists and record companies.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.