In the seventies and eighties of the last century, I owned a bar in Dayton, Ohio, where I regularly booked Chicago Blues bands. This gave me special access to many well-known musicians. I have some great memories.
I especially remember my middle-of-the-night conversations with Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon. We discussed philosophy, politics, and of course the Blues — as well as his thoughts about his wooden leg (which he showed me and confessed was the result of his diabetes), the British bands covering his music, and his collaborations with legendary blues artists. it was a great opportunity to meet and get to know a music legend.
Unlike other traveling blues heroes who regarded life strictly in twelve bars, Dixon seemed learned and inquisitive about the world around him. Standing 6′ 6″ and weighing 250 lbs., Willie told me about his days as a boxer once he settled in Chicago. The man won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship in 1937.
Willie said that boxing and playing the blues share some common elements. Both require a strong sense of rhythm and timing. Both activities can be highly emotional and expressive. Both share moments of improvisation and creativity, in which the performer or boxer can adapt to the flow.
One night, I discovered a treasure in my nightclub’s band room after a Dixon gig. It was a crumpled-up bar napkin containing Dixon’s setlist, which just happened to list the best Blues songs ever written. Willie Dixon’s songs.
I wish I had kept that napkin.
With his commanding presence, immense talent, and distinctive contributions to Blues music, Willie Dixon’s legacy remains robust. The man could play bass.
Editor’s note: Here is a three+ minute video of Willie Dixon singing “Little Red Rooster,” with great still graphics, published by Traveler Into The Blue via YouTube:
Willie Dixon (1915-1992) penned some of the most iconic blues songs ever. He gave us classics like “The Seventh Son,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Spoonful, “I Am the Blues,” “Back Door Man,” and “Little Red Rooster.” These tunes became the bedrock of modern Blues and inspired countless musicians to pick up their instruments and learn 12-bar Blues.
Dixon’s influence extended far beyond the borders of Chicago. During the British Invasion of the 1960s, bands like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Cream covered his songs. In fact, Led Zeppelin’s versions of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me,” off their first album, paid homage to Dixon’s work, adding a hard rock edge to his blues compositions. Dixon’s songwriting prowess became the bridge between American blues and British rock, solidifying his impact on the global music scene.
Willie Dixon was an integral part of the Chicago Blues scene. He collaborated with Blues artists like Muddy Waters (who covered Dixon’s “I’m Ready” and “Hootchie Kootchie Man” in 1954), Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, and Little Walter. His bass-playing skills added a unique groove to their collaboration, and his songwriting abilities gave them a repertoire of timeless hits. Dixon’s collaborations with these giants of the blues world formed a core part of his legacy.
He was described by many as a man of great passion and charm. No one doubted his unwavering commitment to the Blues. Dixon once said, “The blues are the roots, the other music are the fruits. It’s better to keep the roots alive because it means better fruits from now on.”
Some personal highlights: Willie Dixon was one of 14 children growing up along the Blues Highway in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in 1936 and signed with Chess Records. As he got older and was less likely to perform, Dixon joined the management of Chess as a producer and talent scout. Dixon refused induction into the military as a conscientious objector and served 10 months in prison.
Willie Dixon was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Willie Dixon recognized that to preserve the legacy of the Blues, there should be widespread recognition of its creators. Copyrights and Songwriting royalty compensation laws were evolving back then, and many blues artists, Dixon included, battled to get their fair share.
Dixon took legal action against some British bands for uncredited use of his material. In his 1985 lawsuit versus Led Zeppelin, Dixon claimed, convincingly, that the song, “Whole Lotta Love” was a duplicate of his 1962 number, “You Need Love.” Part of the settlement ordered that Dixon be listed as a co-writer. The financial part was not revealed, but singer Robert Plant told Rolling Stone, “Now happily paid for.”
Other settlements remain largely undisclosed. One Celebrity Net Worth website estimated Dixon’s fortune as between $1.2–$2 million.
It would seem that Willie Dixon, the songwriter of the blues, finally got paid.
Editor’s note: Author Dennis Stewart hosts Dr. Rock’s Tuesday Morning Party on Dayton’s Oldies 97.3, based in Dayton, Ohio. Dennis, or Dr. Rock, plays classic rock, blues, R&B, and soul music from back in the day.
Dennis was the owner of the notorious Walnut Hills bar in Dayton where he booked musical acts with an emphasis on the Blues. Dennis visited Chicago several times a year in the eighties to scout Chicago Blues performers like Willie Dixon. I accompanied him on a few memorable occasions. –AG