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Willie Dixon

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Willie Dixon
Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival 1981
Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival 1981
Background information
Birth nameWilliam James Dixon
Born(1915-07-01)July 1, 1915
Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedJanuary 29, 1992(1992-01-29) (aged 76)
Burbank, California
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • arranger
  • record producer
  • Vocals
  • double bass
  • bass guitar
Years active1939–1992
Formerly ofBig Three Trio

William James Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was an American blues musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and record producer.[1] He was proficient in playing both the upright bass and the guitar, and sang with a distinctive voice, but he is perhaps best known as one of the most prolific songwriters of his time. Next to Muddy Waters, Dixon is recognized as the most influential person in shaping the post–World War II sound of the Chicago blues.[2]

Dixon's songs have been recorded by countless musicians in many genres as well as by various ensembles in which he participated. A short list of his most famous compositions includes "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You", "Little Red Rooster", "My Babe", "Spoonful", and "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover". These songs were written during the peak years of Chess Records, from 1950 to 1965, and were performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley; they influenced a generation of musicians worldwide.[3]

Dixon was an important link between the blues and rock and roll, working with Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley in the late 1950s.[4] In the 1960s, his songs were adapted by numerous rock artists. He received a Grammy Award and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.


Dixon performing in 1963

Early life


Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 1, 1915.[1] He was one of fourteen children.[5] His mother, Daisy, often rhymed things she said, a habit her son imitated. At the age of seven, young Dixon became an admirer of a band that featured pianist Little Brother Montgomery. He sang his first song at Springfield Baptist Church at the age of four.[6] Dixon was first introduced to blues when he served time on prison farms in Mississippi as a young teenager. Later in his teens, he learned to sing harmony from a local carpenter, Theo Phelps, who led a gospel quintet, the Union Jubilee Singers, in which Dixon sang bass; the group regularly performed on the Vicksburg radio station WQBC.[7] He began adapting his poems into songs and even sold some to local music groups.



Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936.[5] A man of considerable stature, standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing, at which he was successful, winning the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937.[8] Around 1939, he became a professional boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis's sparring partner, but after four fights he left boxing in a dispute with his manager over money.

Dixon met Leonard Caston at a boxing gym, where they would harmonize at times. Dixon performed in several vocal groups in Chicago, but it was Caston that persuaded him to pursue music seriously.[9] Caston built him his first bass, made of a tin-can and one string. Dixon's experience singing bass made the instrument familiar.[6] He also learned to play the guitar.

In 1939, Dixon was a founding member of the Five Breezes, with Caston, Joe Bell, Gene Gilmore and Willie Hawthorne.[4] The group blended blues, jazz, and vocal harmonies, in the mode of the Ink Spots.[4] Dixon's progress on the upright bass came to an abrupt halt with the advent of World War II, when he refused induction into military service as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for ten months.[1] He refused to go to war because he would not fight for a nation in which institutionalized racism and racist laws were prevalent.[10] After the war, he formed a group named the Four Jumps of Jive.[4] He then reunited with Caston, forming the Big Three Trio,[5] which went on to record for Columbia Records.[4]

Pinnacle of career


Dixon signed with Chess Records as a recording artist, but he began performing less, being more involved with administrative tasks for the label.[4] By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer, talent scout, session musician and staff songwriter.[4] He was also a producer for the Chess subsidiary Checker Records.[4] His relationship with Chess was sometimes strained, but he stayed with the label from 1948 to the early 1960s. During this time Dixon's output and influence were prodigious. From late 1956 to early 1959, he worked in a similar capacity for Cobra Records, for which he produced early singles for Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy.[11] In 1956, Dixon wrote "Fishin' in My Pond", which was recorded by Lee Jackson, and released on Cobra in February 1957.[12][13] Dixon later recorded for Bluesville Records. From the late 1960s until the mid-1970s, Dixon ran his own record label, Yambo Records, and two subsidiary labels, Supreme and Spoonful. He released his 1971 album, Peace?, on Yambo and also singles by McKinley Mitchell, Lucky Peterson and others.[14]

Dixon 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, Joe Louis Walker, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, Jimmy Rogers, Sam Lay and others.

In December 1964, the Rolling Stones reached number one on the UK Singles Chart with their cover of Dixon's "Little Red Rooster".[15] In the same year, the group also covered "I Just Want To Make Love To You" on their debut album, The Rolling Stones.


In his later years, Dixon became a tireless ambassador for the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the blues and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past.[4] Speaking with the simple eloquence that was a hallmark of his songs, Dixon claimed, "The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It's better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues."

In 1977, unhappy with the small royalties paid by Chess's publishing company, Arc Music, Dixon and Muddy Waters sued Arc and, with the proceeds from the settlement, founded their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music.[16]

In 1987, Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with the rock band Led Zeppelin after suing for plagiarism in the band's use of his music in "Bring It On Home" and lyrics from his composition "You Need Love" (1962) in the band's recording of "Whole Lotta Love".[17]

Death and legacy


Dixon's health increasingly deteriorated during the 1970s and the 1980s, primarily as a result of long-term diabetes. Eventually one of his legs was amputated.[1]

Dixon was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, in the inaugural session of the Blues Foundation's ceremony.[18] In 1989 he received a Grammy Award for his album Hidden Charms.[19]

Dixon died of heart failure on January 29, 1992, in Burbank, California,[1] and was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois.[20]

After his death, his widow, Marie Dixon, took over the Blues Heaven Foundation and moved the headquarters to Chess Records.[21] Dixon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influences (pre-rock) in 1994.[22] On April 28, 2013, both Dixon and his grandson Alex Dixon were inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame.[23]

In 2007, Dixon was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Vicksburg.[24]

The actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer portrayed Dixon in Cadillac Records, a 2008 film based on the early history of Chess Records.[25][26]

In 2020, Rolling Stone ranked him as the 12th greatest bass player and mentioned him as the history's most influential bluesmen.[27]



Dixon wrote or co-wrote more than 500 songs.[28] Several have become blues standards, including "Help Me", "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Can't Quit You Baby", "I Ain't Superstitious" "I'm Ready", "Little Red Rooster", "My Babe", and "Spoonful".[29] Other Dixon compositions that reached the record charts include "Evil" (Howlin' Wolf), "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (Muddy Waters), "Pretty Thing" (Bo Diddley), "The Seventh Son" (Willie Mabon), "Wang Dang Doodle" (Koko Taylor), and "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover" (Bo Diddley).[30] In the 1960s, Dixon's songs were adapted by numerous rock artists.[31]




Year Title Label Number Comments
1959 Willie's Blues Bluesville BVLP-1003 With Memphis Slim
1960 Blues Every Which Way Verve MGV-3007 With Memphis Slim
1960 Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon[32] Folkways FW-2385
1962 Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon at the Village Gate Folkways FA-2386 Live, with Pete Seeger
1963 In Paris: Baby Please Come Home! Battle BM-6122 With Memphis Slim, 1962
1970 I Am the Blues Columbia PC-9987 With the Chicago All Stars; also released on DVD, 2003
1971 Willie Dixon's Peace? Yambo 777-15 With the Chicago All Stars
1973 Catalyst Ovation OVQD-1433 Quadraphonic pressing
1976 What Happened to My Blues Ovation OV-1705
1983 Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane Pausa PR-7157
1985 Willie Dixon: Live (Backstage Access) Pausa PR-7183 With Sugar Blue and Clifton James, Montreux, 1985
1988 Hidden Charms Bug/Capitol C1-90593 Grammy-winning album
1988 Willie Dixon: The Chess Box Chess/MCA CHD2-16500 Mix of Dixon's own with well-known Chess artists' recordings
1989 Ginger Ale Afternoon Varèse Sarabande VSD-5234 Soundtrack for movie of the same name
1990 The Big Three Trio Columbia/Legacy C-46216 Recorded 1947–1952
1993 Willie Dixon's Blues Dixonary Roots RTS 33046 EAN: 8712177013760
1995 The Original Wang Dang Doodle: The Chess Recordings Chess/MCA 9353 1954–1990 recordings (some previously unreleased)
1996 Crying the Blues: Live in Concert Thunderbolt CDTB-166 Live, with Johnny Winter and the Chicago All Stars, Houston, 1971
1998 Good Advice Wolf 120,700 Live, with the Chicago All Stars, Long Beach, 1991
1998 I Think I Got the Blues Prevue 17
2001 Big Boss Men: Blues Legends of the Sixties Indigo (UK) IGOXCD543 Live, Houston, 1971–72 (six tracks)
2008 Giant of the Blues Blues Boulevard 250196 EAN: 5413992501960


  1. ^ a b c d e Eder, Bruce. "Willie Dixon: Biography, Credits, Discography". AllMusic.com. Retrieved March 13, 2013.
  2. ^ Trager, Oliver (2004). Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Billboard Books. pp. 298–299. ISBN 0-8230-7974-0.
  3. ^ Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. McFarland. p. 87. ISBN 0-7864-0606-2.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 706. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  5. ^ a b c Palmer 1982, p. 166.
  6. ^ a b Long, Worth (1995). "The Wisdom of the Blues—Defining Blues as the True Facts of Life: An Interview with Willie Dixon." African American Review 29.2. pp. 207–212. JSTOR. Web. October 2, 2015.
  7. ^ Dixon & Snowden 1990, pp. 25, 34.
  8. ^ Snowden 1997, Box set booklet.
  9. ^ Eder, Bruce (2010). "Leonard Caston". Biography of Leonard Caston. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  10. ^ Baird, Jim (2014). "Book Review: Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues." Journal of American Folklore 127: 100–101. ProQuest.Web. October 3, 2015.
  11. ^ Dixon & Snowden 1990, pp. 103–112.
  12. ^ "Illustrated Lee Jackson discography". Wirz.de. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  13. ^ "Fishin' In My Pond". 45cat.com. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  14. ^ Dixon & Snowden 1990, p. 244.
  15. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records. p. 458. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  16. ^ Mitsutoshi 2011, p. 67.
  17. ^ Mitsutoshi 2011, p. 197.
  18. ^ "1980 Hall of Fame Inductees Archived March 5, 2007, at the Wayback Machine". Blues Foundation. Blues.org. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  19. ^ "Willie Dixon Timeline". Chicago: Blues Heaven Foundation. BluesHeaven.com. 2007. Retrieved July 18, 2009.
  20. ^ Dixon is buried at Lot 18, Grave 1, Acacia Lawn, Burr Oak Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3rd ed.). 2 (Kindle location 12459). McFarland & Company. Kindle edition
  21. ^ Barretta, Scott (2008). "Voices from Chicago: Jackie Dixon." Living Blues 05: 38–39. ProQuest. Web. October 3, 2015.
  22. ^ Rule, Sheila (January 20, 1994). "Rock Greats Hail, Hail Their Own at Spirited Hall of Fame Ceremony". New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  23. ^ "2013 Chicago Blues Hall of Fame". Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  24. ^ "Willie Dixon's way: Mural, marker, party honor city son|[06/29/07] - The Vicksburg Post". The Vicksburg Post. June 29, 2007.
  25. ^ Simmons, Leslie (January 22, 2008). "Brody, Wright Join Musical Chess Club". Reuters. Retrieved January 25, 2012.
  26. ^ Mayberry, Carly (February 12, 2008). "Alessandro Nivola to Play Blues Mogul in 'Chess'". Reuters. Retrieved January 25, 2012.
  27. ^ "Willie Dixon". Rolling Stone Australia. July 2, 2020. Retrieved November 2, 2023.
  28. ^ Dixon & Snowden 1990, p. 247.
  29. ^ Herzhaft 1992, pp. 436–478
  30. ^ Whitburn 1988, pp. 465–578.
  31. ^ Dixon & Snowden 1990, Appendix 2.
  32. ^ Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon (Media notes). Folkways Records. Retrieved January 1, 2010.