A former Golden Gloves boxing champion, Willie Dixon was in the heavyweight category when it came to the musicians he produced, accompanied and provided repertoire for, ranging from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. “The Poet Laureate of The Blues” was born today in 1915.
Blues giant Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, USA. Relocating to Chicago as a teenager, he sang and recorded with a number of groups including The Five Breezes (where he also began to play bass),The Four Jumps of Jive and The Big Three Trio.
Working as a session musician accompanying the likes of Robert Nighthawk brought him into contact with the Chess brothers and he would later join their label as songwriter, musician and studio manager, although the financial rewards were never great.
Providing Muddy Waters with “Hoochie Coochie Man” and writing Little Walter’s “My Babe”, Dixon defected to the Cobra and Artistic labels in 1956, returning four years later. Providing Howlin’ Wolf with popular sides such as “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Spoonful”, he also recorded solo albums and with Memphis Slim on other labels.
By the mid 1960s, Dixon had teamed up with concert promoter Horst Lippmann to devise what became the American Folk-Blues Festival, an ensemble who toured Europe on the back of renewed interest in the genres (caused in part by bands like the Rolling Stones playing numbers such as Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” and name-checking the originators).
Parting company with Chess again in 1969, the following year saw is album “I Am the Blues” released, Willie’s biggest seller until the Grammy Award-winning “Hidden Charms” record in 1988 – by which time Willie was established as an elder statesman of the Chicago blues scene.
Instrumental in founding the Blues Heaven Foundation, Willie attempted to redress the imbalance in earnings by his contemporaries caused by dodgy contract dealings and publishing rights abuses – Dixon himself benefiting belatedly from Led Zeppelin’s adoption of his repertoire.
Enduring poor health in his later years and losing a leg to diabetes, Willie died in his sleep in January 1992. However his music lives on, with the likes of Eric Clapton still performing Dixon compositions in live shows. 2001 meanwhile saw a fine covers compilation of Willie’s work released, featuring contributions from the likes of Sonny Landreth.
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And here’s some footage of Willie in action: