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Willie Dixon (July 1, 1915 -- January 19, 1992)
Sometimes you have to look behind the scenes to find the true facts.
Sometimes it takes a scan of the credits to get past the bright,
stra-time glare of the marquee lights shinning on the performers in
order to discover the unsung heroes who played equally pivotal roles in
creating the music. Sometimes even that does not help, particularly in
the world of early blues when floating pools of session players often
anonymously gave each label's artists an identifiying sonic stamp and
the accuracy of songwriting credits were suspect at best.
Few, if any, of those unheralded behind the scenes operatives loom larger in the annals of Blues music than Willie Dixon... and not mearly because of the vast physical dimentions of the man. As the backbone of the Chess operation during its heyday - a multi-faceted role as songwriter, house bassist on "everbody's everything," studio band leader and de facto arranger/producer on virtually all the labels major blues hits - Willie Dixon's part in shaping the sound of modern Chicago blues can hardly be overestimated.
Willie Dixon's way with words began to be honed not long after he
was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915. His mother Daisey,
habitually tried to turn everything she said into rhymes,and Willie
quickly followed suit. His first musical influence came at 7, when he
would take off from school to spend the afternoon scampering through
the dusty streets of Vicksburg behind a truck pulling a band featuring
pianist Little Brother Montgomery.
In 1945 Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston and Willie teamed up to form the
Big Three Trio along with guitaristBernardo Dennis (who was replaced by
Ollie Crawford a year later). Their hometown gigs were mostly in
Chicago's downtown loop district playing for predominantly white
audiences, but they also frequently joined in at late night jam
sessions with Muddy Waters and the core of Chicago's developing blues
One south side gig at the El Casino Club led to Dixon occasionally
paticipating in jam sessions around the corner at the El Mocamba, a
jumping joint run by a pair of Polish emigres named Leonard and Phil
Chess. Dixon noted that the brothers Chess were trying to get a record
company off the ground; the brothers Chess noted Dixon was a solid bass
player with studio experience any fledgling company could use.
Dixon had picked up that experience working sessions for Lester
Melrose, the "go-between man" whom, along with J. Mayo Williams, served
as the conduit to such labels as Bluebird and Okeh for Chicago's black
blues community. Usually playing on a tin can bass, Dixon backed up
artists like Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, John Lee (Sonny Boy)
Williamson, Lil Green and other memebers of Chicago's old blues guard.
Despite the image of Chicago blues as a raw, guitar and harmonica-
dominated sound, Dixon's own tracks indicate that, as early as 1951, he
was no stranger to light, lilting horns and piano sound he used later
to fashion Chess selections by Willie Mabon, Lowell Fulson and Jimmy
Nor does it require an advanced degree in music theory to recognize
the rhythmic connection between Dixon's "29 Ways" and Little Walter's
"Mellow Down Easy." But is was not until the night he corralled Muddy
Waters at a Chicago club, herded Muddy into the men's room between sets
to teach him the diamond-hard riff and boastful lyrics of "Hoochie
Coochie Man" that Dixon became a songwriting force to be recond with.
It was a classic case of the right singer for the right song. Framed by
archetypal riff, Muddy's vocals leap out like a shot, adding a tough
bravado to Dixon's music, which had begun to move towards the rough and
tumble edge that had became synonymous with the sound of Chicago blues.
Willie has said " I've been real lucky about writing people songs, but
a lot of times if I picked a song, the guy didn't want the song for
himself. You had to use backwards psychology --I'd say this is a song
for Muddy Waters if I wanted Howlin Wolf to do it because they seemed
to have a little thing going on between them".
Between 1957 - 1959 Willie took his multiple skills across town to
the West Side and the fledgling Cobra label. There he instantly
established Cobra's credibility with Otis Rush's "I Can't Quit You,
Baby". His arranging, production and songwriting savvy helped
then-unproven artists like Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam make their
initial mark in the blues world, but finacial difficulties with cobra
brought Dixon back to Chess in 1959.
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