Willie Dixon was a highly influential blues bassist, composer, arranger, singer, and producer, most famously for Chess records in Chicago. His work with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in the 1950s helped shape the postwar urban blues style, while his association with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley contributed to the early development of rock and roll.
Willie James Dixon was born in Vicksburg on 1 July 1915. He gained an appreciation for reading and poetry at an early age from his mother, Daisy Dixon. While in the fourth grade in the depression-era South, Dixon wrote, printed, and sold thousands of copies of poems such as “The Signifying Monkey” and other ditties to local bands on the streets of Vicksburg. As a teenager Dixon learned about harmony singing from a carpenter, Theo Phelps, who added him to the Union Jubilee Singers.
Dixon moved to Chicago at age seventeen and immersed himself in the boxing world. His pugilistic talents brought him the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship in 1937. He met guitarist Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston at a gym and began playing the stand-up bass when he and Caston sang together on street corners. The two formed the quintet the Five Breezes, which recorded eight sides for the Bluebird label in 1940. In 1941 Dixon, who was a conscientious objector to World War II, spent ten months in prison for draft evasion. Upon his release he formed the Four Jumps of Jive, and the group cut four sides for Mercury Records in 1945. Later that year Dixon again found himself working with Caston in the Big Three Trio, which recorded for OKeh, Delta, and Columbia Records between 1946 and 1954.
These early recordings caught the attention of Leonard and Phil Chess, who hired Dixon to do session work for the Aristocrat label, a Chess subsidiary, in 1948, beginning with a session with Robert Nighthawk. While Dixon recorded some of his own material for Aristocrat over the next two years, he remained primarily a featured artist during other musicians’ sessions.
The commercial appeal of Dixon’s songwriting became apparent with Muddy Waters’s 1954 recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” After this initial success, Dixon produced a string of hits for many of Chess’s high-profile performers, including Waters’s follow-up, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”; Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil”; and Little Walter Jacobs’s “My Babe” and “Mellow Down Easy.” The Chess brothers subsequently began pushing Dixon-penned songs on their stable of artists, and he became known as the label’s most reliable tunesmith. Dixon continued his session work by accompanying R&B artists Lowell Fulson, Bo Diddley, and Sonny Boy Williamson II on stand-up bass. He also worked on early rock and roll recordings, including Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
Dixon found it hard to support his family on the hundred dollars a week the Chess brothers paid him, and he began working for Chess’s crosstown rival, Cobra, in 1956 while continuing his session work for his old label. At Cobra, Dixon wrote songs for pioneers of the so-called West Side sound such as Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush. Rush’s version of the Dixon-penned “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” was the company’s first single and a Top 10 R&B hit. Cobra folded in 1958.
Upon Dixon’s return to Chess full time in the late 1950s, his session work gradually diminished in favor of artists who played the electric bass. At the same time, the emergence of rock and roll had a detrimental effect on Chicago’s live blues scene. As playing gigs began to dwindle, Dixon joined Memphis Slim on an East Coast tour and at the Newport Folk Festival in 1957 and 1958. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Dixon performed at several successful American Folk Blues Festivals in Europe organized by Germans Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. Dixon’s role as an organizer for these festivals brought him into contact with young British rock bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds that had been heavily influenced by his songwriting. By the mid-1960s Dixon’s relationship with Chess ended, but not before he penned singer Koko Taylor’s 1966 hit, “Wang Dang Doodle.”
In the 1970s Dixon focused his energies on recouping much of the royalties that Chess had failed to pay him for his services over the preceding two decades. He created the Blues Heaven Foundation to help other aging blues musicians obtain financial security. This work led to Dixon’s involvement in obtaining song copyrights for Chess artists into the 1980s. Dixon’s health then began to decline, and he died in his sleep in 1992 at his home in Pasadena, California.
- Lenny Carlson and Fred Sokolow, Willie Dixon: The Master Blues Composer, 1915–1992 (1992)
- Bob Corritore, Bill Ferris, and Jim O’Neal, Living Blues (July–August, September–October 1988)
- Willie Dixon with Don Snowden, I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story (1989)
- Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (2000)
- Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting (1997)