William James “Willie” Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was an American blues singer-songwriter, many of whose songs became classics of the Chicago blues genre and were later covered by major rock and roll artists. He was also a noted bassist, arranger, and record producer for Chicago’s premier blues label, Chess Records, in its heyday during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Dixon wrote such blues hits as “Little Red Rooster,” “Big Boss Man,” “Spoonful,” “Back Door Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “My Babe,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Bring It on Home.” His songs were performed by blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter. He also influenced a generation of younger musicians who later recorded his songs, including Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, The Doors, The Animals, Bob Dylan, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead and many others.
Dixon also formed a direct link between the blues and rock and roll by working with rock artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in their early years. Next to Muddy Waters, he is considered the most influential shaper of the post-World War II sound of the Chicago blues and is thought by some to be the most important blues songwriter in history.
Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915. His mother, Daisy, often created rhymes during casual conversation, a habit Dixon learned to imitate. At the age of seven, he became an admirer of a band that featured blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery. Dixon was further introduced to the blues when he served time on prison farms in Mississippi as an early-teenager. He also learned how to sing harmony from a local carpenter named Leo Phelps. Dixon sang bass in Phelps’ group, the Jubilee Singers, a local gospel quartet that regularly appeared on the Vicksburg radio station WQBC. Around this time Dixon began experimenting with songwriting by adapting poems he had written into songs, and was even able to sell some of them to local music groups.
Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936. A man of impressive stature at 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing. He showed considerable talent in the sport, winning the Illinois State Golden Gloves heavyweight championship (novice division) in 1937. Dixon then turned professional as a boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis’ sparring partner. After four pro fights, however, he abandoned the boxing business due to a quarrel with his manager over a question of money.
At the boxing gym, Dixon was met by fellow singer Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, who helped him become serious about music as a career. Dixon sang in several vocal groups in Chicago, and Caston built him his first bass, made of a tin can and one string. Dixon also learned the guitar.
In Chicago, Dixon and Caston helped form the Five Breezes, a group that blended blues and jazz, emphasizing vocal harmonies. Dixon’s progress in learning to play the bass was halted when he was imprisoned for ten months after resisting the draft during World War II. After the war, he briefly formed the Four Jumps of Jive and then reunited with Caston to create the Big Three Trio, which went on to record briefly for Columbia Records.
Dixon first signed with Chess Records in 1948 as a recording artist, but soon began working at the label as a producer and arranger. By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer, talent scout, session musician on the bass, arranger, and staff songwriter. Although his relationship with the label was sometimes strained, he remained with Chess through the early 1960s. During this time his output and influence was prodigious.
The artists with whom Dixon worked reads like a Who’s Who of the Chicago blues world, including such greats as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy, and Washboard Sam. He also appears on many of Chuck Berry’s early recordings and worked with Bo Diddley during the same period, forming a direct link between blues and early rock and roll.
Dixon had a unique gift for refurbishing traditional blues motifs. Even though many of his songs follow traditional 12-bar blues patterns, they are highly varied and rarely monotonous, featuring memorable “hooks” and bridges, demonstrating his sophistication as an arranger, yet remaining true to the authentic blues form. He also showed a flare as a lyricist, from the party chatter of “Wang Dang Doogle” to the humorous complaint of “Big Boss Man” and the melancholy lament of a man plagued by sexual impotence in “Little Red Rooster.” So successful was his songwriting career that it was hardly an exaggeration when he boasted “I am the blues!”
In the early 1960s, many of the young blues-oriented groups in Britain began playing and recording Dixon’s songs. In December 1964, The Rolling Stones reached number one on the UK Singles Chart with their cover version of “Little Red Rooster.” Cream, The Animals, and Eric Clapton also covered many of his songs. In the US, The Doors had a hit with his “Back Door Man,” a song originally written for Howlin’ Wolf. The Lovin’ Spoonful took their name from the Dixon song “Spoonful,” which likewise had been a hit for Wolf. Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart” was also penned by Dixon, as was Captain Beefheart’s “Ditty Wah Ditty.”
In the late 1960s, as the blues revival reached full swing, Dixon put together several all-star Chicago-based blues ensembles for work in Europe. He also had a modest success as a performing artist himself as he played at folk venues and blues festivals throughout the US and Europe, often performing with pianist Memphis Slim. His health deteriorated in the 1970s and 1980s due to long-term diabetes, and one leg eventually had to be amputated.
Dixon died of heart failure in Burbank, California on January 29, 1992, at 77 years of age, and was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Willie Dixon is considered by many to be the greatest blues songwriter in history. Together with Muddy Waters and other Chicago bluesmen, he was one of the main creators of the Chicago blues sound which interpreted Mississippi Delta blues in an urban setting in the context of the contemporary R & B market of the time.
Dixon was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 at its inaugural session. He also won a Grammy Award in 1989 for his album, Hidden Charms. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the “early influences” (pre-rock) category in 1994. His song “Hoochie Coochie Man” is listed among Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Dixon’s work was covered by a varied range of artists, from the blues and jazz to modern day rock music and R & B practitioners. In addition to his classic blues hits, he was also the composer of such popular classics as “Pain In My Heart” (Otis Redding), “Diddy Wah Diddy” (Captain Beefheart), “The Seventh Son” (Mose Allison), and “You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking At Its Cover” (Bo Diddley). Led Zeppelin’s hit “Whole Lotta Love” and was based on Dixon’s “You Need Love,” and the Righteous’ Brothers’ “My Babe” was a remake of the Dixon song of the same name, which had been a hit for Little Walter.
Actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer portrayed Dixon in the 2008 feature film Cadillac Records, based on the life of Leonard Chess and featuring Beyoncé as Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters.
Dixon wrote many famous blues songs for the great artists of the Chicago blues genre, often producing the records and playing double bass when they were first recorded. Many of his songs were later covered by second-generation blues and rock artists. Some of his better known songs include:
- “29 Ways” – Marc Cohn, Willie Dixon, The Blues Band
- “300 Pounds Of Joy” – Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Jones and Jools Holland
- “After Five Long Years” – Willie Dixon
- “As Long as I Have You” – Led Zeppelin
- “Back Door Man” – Howlin’ Wolf, The Doors, Grateful Dead, Shadows of Knight, Bob Weir
- “Big Boss Man” – Jimmy Reed, Elvis Presley, The Animals, The Grateful Dead
- “Bring It on Home” – Sonny Boy Williamson II, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Dread Zeppelin, Johnny Thunders
- “Built for Comfort” – Howlin’ Wolf, Canned Heat, UFO
- “Crazy For My Baby” – Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite, Willie Dixon
- “Crazy Love” – Buddy Guy
- “Crazy Mixed Up World” – Little Walter
- “Close to You” – Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Doors
- “Dead Presidents” – Little Walter, The J. Geils Band
- “Diddy Wah Diddy” – Bo Diddley, Captain Beefheart, The Blues Band
- “Do Me Right” – Lowell Fulson
- “Do the Do” – Howlin’ Wolf
- “Don’t Go No Farther” – Muddy Waters
- “Don’t Tell Me Nothin´” – Willie Dixon – used in the movie The Color of Money
- “Down in the Bottom” – Howlin’ Wolf, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings
- “Earthquake and Hurricane” – Willie Dixon
- “Eternity” – Grateful Dead
- “Everybody Needs Something” – Little Walter
- “Everything But You” – Jimmy Witherspoon
- “Everything’s Got a Time” – Willie Dixon
- “Evil” – Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, Monster Magnet, Derek and the Dominos, Gary Moore, Cactus, The Faces, Steve Miller, Koko Taylor
- “Flamin’ Mamie” – Willie Dixon
- “Help Me” – Sonny Boy Williamson II
- “Grave Digger Blues” – Willie Dixon
- “Groanin’ the Blues” – Willie Dixon, Eric Clapton
- “Hidden Charms” – Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray
- “Hoochie Coochie Man” – Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Shadows of Knight, Eric Burdon, The Nashville Teens, Dion, The Allman Brothers Band, Alexis Korner, Steppenwolf, Chuck Berry, Motörhead, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Healey, Manfred Mann
- “Howlin’ For My Baby” – Howlin’ Wolf, George Thorogood
- “I Ain’t Superstitious” – Howlin’ Wolf, The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, Megadeth, The Jeff Beck Group, Chris Spedding
- “I Can’t Quit You Baby” – Little Milton, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Led Zeppelin, Gary Moore, Dread Zeppelin, Nine Below Zero
- “I Can’t Understand” – Los Lobos (co-written with Cesar Rojas)
- “I Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” – Willie Dixon
- “If the Sea Was Whiskey” – Chris Thile
- “I Got What It Takes” – Koko Taylor
- “I Just Want To Make Love To You” – Muddy Waters, The Animals, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Shadows of Knight, Mungo Jerry, Grateful Dead, Foghat, The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Van Morrison, Paul Rodgers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, April Wine, Robben Ford, Meat Puppets, Cold Sweat
- “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love” – Muddy Waters, Willie Nelson
- “I’m Ready” – Muddy Waters, Humble Pie, Buddy Guy, Aerosmith, Long John Baldry, Eric Burdon, George Thorogood, Albert King
- “Insane Asylum” – Koko Taylor, Kathy McDonald and Sly Stone, Diamanda Galás, Asylum Street Spankers, The Detroit Cobras, Oxbow feat, Marianne Faithful
- “I Don’t Play” – Robben Ford
- “I Got My Brand on You” – Muddy Waters
- “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” – Styx
- “I Want To Be Loved” – Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones
- “Let Me Love You Baby” – Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Muddy Waters, B. B. King
- “Little Baby” – Howlin’ Wolf, The Rolling Stones
- “Little Red Rooster” – Howlin’ Wolf, Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Luther Allison, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Big Mama Thornton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
- “Love, Life & Money” – Johnny Winter
- “Mellow Down Easy” – Little Walter & His Jukes, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Black Crowes, Carey Bell, ZZ Top, Jimmy Reed, Holly Golightly
- “Million Dollar Baby” – Dizzy Gillespie
- “My Babe” – Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Spencer Davis Group, John P. Hammond, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Othar Turner & The Rising Star Fire and Drum Band
- “My Baby’s Sweeter” – Little Walter, Fleetwood Mac
- “My Captain” – Muddy Waters
- “My John the Conqueror Root” – Muddy Waters
- “Nervous” – Willie Dixon
- “Oh Baby” – Little Walter
- “One More Chance With You” – Little Walter
- “Pain In My Heart” – Willie Dixon, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Grateful Dead
- “Pie in the Sky” – Willie Dixon
- “Pretty Thing” – Bo Diddley, Pretty Things, Canned Heat
- “Seventh Son” – Willie Mabon, Mose Allison, Bill Haley, Johnny Rivers, Sting, Climax Blues Band, Long John Baldry
- “Sin And City” – Buddy Guy
- “Shake For Me” – Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan
- “Sit and Cry (The Blues)” – Buddy Guy (co-written with Buddy Guy)
- “Spoonful” – Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Shadows of Knight, Dion, Paul Butterfield, Cream, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, The Who, Etta James, Salty Dog
- “Study War No More” – Willie Dixon
- “The Same Thing” – Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, George Thorogood, The Allman Brothers Band, Sue Foley, The Band, Marc Ford, Grateful Dead
- “The Seventh Son” – Willie Dixon
- “Study No More” – Willie Dixon
- “Third Degree” – Eddie Boyd, Willie Dixon, Eric Clapton, Leslie West
- “Tollin’ Bells” – Lowell Fulson, Savoy Brown Blues Band, Robert Cray
- “Too Late” – Little Milton, Little Walter
- “Too Many Cooks” – Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Mick Jagger
- “Violent Love” – Otis Rush, The Big Three, Oingo Boingo, Dr. Feelgood
- “Walkin’ The Blues” – Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, John Kay
- “Wang Dang Doodle” – Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Grateful Dead, Savoy Brown, Box Tops, PJ Harvey, Rufus Thomas, The Pointer Sisters, The Blues Band, Widespread Panic
- “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” – Willie Dixon, Widespread Panic
- “When My Left Eye Jumps” – Buddy Guy
- “When The Lights Go Out” – Jimmy Witherspoon, Kim Wilson
- “Who” – Little Walter
- “Wigglin’ Worm” – Willie Dixon
- “You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking At Its Cover” – Bo Diddley, Shadows of Knight, Cactus, The Yardbirds, Beat Farmers, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tim Hardin, The Merseybeats, Elliott Murphy, Long John Baldry, The Monkees, Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan.
- “You Don’t Love Me” – Booker T. & the M.G.s, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills
- “You Know My Love” – Otis Rush, Gary Moore
- “You’ll Be Mine” – Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dr. Feelgood
- “You Need Love” – Muddy Waters
- “Whole Lotta Love” – Led Zeppelin, based on Dixon’s “You Need Love.” Dixon and his music publisher received credit and royalties, after a 1985 lawsuit was settled out of court.
- “You Shook Me”– Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Dread Zeppelin
- “Young Fashioned Ways” – Muddy Waters