“Hoochie Coochie Man”
“Little Red Rooster”
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”
“Back Door Man”
“Wang Dang Doodle”
“I Just Want to Make Love to You”
If you’ve heard the blues, you’ve heard at least one or two of these songs. If you were a fan of the British Invasion, you sure as heck heard the Stones, Zeppelin, Cream, or any number of fresh-faced Brits taking a stab at them.
Willie Dixon wrote these, and a host of other blues standards (like “Seventh Son”, “My Babe”, and “Bring It on Home”). The title of his 1970 album, I Am the Blues, would seem to be more than an idle boast.
Born a seventh child on 1 July 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dixon set off on a life that sounds like a mix of Tom Sawyer and Rocky. Vicksburg sat on the Mississippi River and the commerce to cities like Memphis and New Orleans also brought a constant stream of music like Dixieland jazz and blues from performers ranging from itinerant minstrels to giants like Charlie Patton. His childhood was poor, with the Great Depression arriving while he was in his teens. Like many people fighting for survival during that time, he was arrested for various petty crimes, such as stealing the hardware from an abandoned house.
He arrived in Chicago in the mid-thirties at the age of 17 (after riding the rails and even being sent to a work camp after being arrested for “hoboing”), and was shortly named Illinois Golden Gloves Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He accomplished this feat with little training — his years wandering the country having turned him into a formidable physical specimen (over 300 lbs.). What looked to be a promising boxing career (he had only four official fights, and some sparring with Joe Lewis) ended when he was suspended for brawling with his managers over money in the boxing commissioner’s office.
From there, it was an arrest for ignoring his draft papers (a registered conscientious objector, he criticized the country’s willingness to send his people to war, when they had been mistreated since their arrival). He was jailed and declared unfit for service in the end. After being let out of jail after a year, he got back into music with the formation of the Four Jumps of Jive in ’42.
He later signed on with Chess Records as a songwriter and house bassist, and his big break came in 1952 when Muddy Waters recorded “Hoochie Coochie Man”. While at Chess, Dixon performed some of his own songs, but it was his songwriting and arranging that Chess valued the most. His work became synonymous with certain artists like Little Walter (“Little Red Rooster”) and Howlin’ Wolf (“Wang Dang Doodle”, “Spoonful”, “Evil”, and “Back Door Man”).
Dixon’s stature only grew with the British Invasion. The Rolling Stones took “Little Red Rooster” to Number One. “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” were cornerstones of Led Zeppelin’s first album). “Spoonful” was a hallmark of Cream. England was a country in the grip of blues fever, and Dixon had written most of the songs the country was discovering.
Like many blues artists, Dixon saw very little profit from his recordings (especially by the time younger acts started covering his material). His pay at the height of the Chess years was only $100 a week, hardly enough to support his family. In the ’70s the publishing arm of Chess Records, Arc Records, sued Led Zeppelin over the group’s use of “Bring It on Home” on their second album. Arc won, although Dixon saw no money from it. He ended up having to sue Arc music, in much the same way Arc had sued Zeppelin, to make things right. Later, Dixon would sue Zeppelin himself over the similarities between his “You Need Love” and Led Zeppelin’s mega smash “Whole Lotta Love”. Throughout the later stages of his career, Dixon was at the forefront of efforts to make record companies give artists their due (he even drew his friend Muddy Waters into the lawsuit against Arc). In 1982, he set up the Blues Heaven Foundation, for the express purpose of making sure royalties made it to musicians and their estates.
When listening to Dixon perform his own music, you hear a man who’s certainly able as a singer, but not on the level of Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. Everything about Dixon promises a raw, take-no-prisoners man’s man. While those elements are certainly there, he’s fairly mannered at the microphone, with little of the feral sexuality that Waters gave “Hoochie Coochie Man” or the barely-hinged menace that Wolf brought to “Evil”. His grasp of musical subtlety, though, is truly stunning. It’s not hard to believe that Dixon’s compositional skills formed the backbone of Chess Records during its golden years. Horns, gentle piano, harmonicas — everything we’ve come to think of as the Chicago sound — is in Dixon’s music.
That said, though, it’s other musicians who hold the definitive versions of Dixon’s songs. Muddy Waters practically owns “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”. No one will ever be able to separate Howlin’ Wolf from “Backdoor Man” or “Spoonful”. Dixon always seemed pretty even-keeled about this turn of events, enjoying his stature in the Chess house. Remarkably, he often had to fight to get his fellow blues giants to record his songs. At one point, he revealed, “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.”
Shortly before his death in 1992, Dixon won a Grammy in 1988 for Hidden Charms. Not one of Dixon’s stronger albums, Hidden Charms obviously gave the Grammy voters a chance to recognize someone who’d completely altered the blues. Not bad for roughly 70 years of struggle in the Depression, in the boxing ring, in jails, in recording studios, and in courtrooms. Dixon’s ring career might have been short-lived, but he was a fighter to the core.