Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
William James "Willie" Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was a well-known American blues bassist, singer, songwriter, arranger and record producer. His songs, including "Little Red Rooster", "Hoochie Coochie Man", "Evil", "Spoonful", "Back Door Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You", "I Ain't Superstitious", "My Babe", "Wang Dang Doodle", and "Bring It on Home", written during the peak of Chess Records, 1950-1965, and performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter, influenced a worldwide generation of musicians. Next to Muddy Waters, he was the most influential person in shaping the post-World War II sound of the Chicago Blues. He also was an important link between the blues and rock and roll, working with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the late-1950s, and his songs were covered by some of the biggest bands of the 1960s and 1970s, including Bob Dylan, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Allman Brothers Band, and the Grateful Dead.
Biography - Early life
Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936. A man of considerable stature, at 6 and a half feet and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing; he was so successful that he won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937. Dixon turned professional as a boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis' sparring partner. After four fights, Dixon left boxing after getting into a fight with his manager over being cheated out of money.
Dixon met Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston at the boxing gym where they
would harmonize at times. Dixon performed in several vocal groups in
Chicago but it was Caston that got him to pursue music seriously. Caston
built him his first bass, made of a tin can and one string. Dixon's
experience singing bass made the instrument familiar. He also learned
Dixon signed to Chess Records as a recording artist, but began performing less and became more involved with the label. By 1951, he was a full time employee at Chess where he acted as producer, A&R talent scout, session musician, and staff songwriter. His relationship with the label was sometimes strained, although his spell there covered the years from 1948 to the early 1960s. During this time his output, and influence was prodigious.
Indeed, he once claimed "I am the blues." This may seem a little arrogant, but there is no doubt that he was one of the major influences on the genre, through his original and varied songwriting, live performances, recording, and copious production work. He later recorded on Bluesville Records.
He was also a producer for Checker Records in Chicago and is considered one of the key figures in the creation of Chicago Blues. He worked with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, Jimmy Rogers, and others. His double bass playing was of a high standard. He appears on many of Chuck Berry's early recordings, further proving his linkage between the blues and the birth of rock and roll.
Dixon is remembered mainly as a songwriter; his most enduring gift to the blues, lay in refurbishing archaic Southern motifs, often of magic and country folkways and often derived from earlier records such as those by Charlie Patton, in contemporary arrangements, to produce songs with both the sinew of the blues, and the agility of pop. British R&B bands of the 1960s constantly drew on the Dixon songbook for inspiration. In December 1964, The Rolling Stones reached #1 in the UK Singles Chart with their cover version of Dixon's "Little Red Rooster".
In addition, as his songwriting and production work started to take a backseat, his organizational ability was utilized, putting together all-star, Chicago based blues ensembles for work in Europe.
His health deteriorated in the 1970s and 1980s, due to long-term
diabetes, and eventually his leg had to be amputated. Dixon was inducted
at the inaugural session of the Blues Foundation's ceremony, into the
Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. He was also granted a Grammy Award in 1989
for his album, Hidden Charms.
Dixon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "early influences" (pre-rock) category in 1994. As the song list below demonstrates, his work was covered by a varied range of artists, from the blues, to modern day rock music practitioners.
Actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer will portray Dixon in Cadillac Records, a film based on the life of Leonard Chess, played by Adrien Brody. The film, set in 1950s Chicago, will also feature Beyoncé as Etta James, and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters