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Willie Dixon

By Russ: Willie Dixon was a Chicago blues artist, perhaps best known for his songwriting.  A Grammy Award winner who was proficient on both the upright bass and the guitar and as a vocalist, he is perhaps best known as one of the most prolific writers 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. He wrote or co-wrote over 500 songs and his work has been recorded by some of the best-known blues musicians of his era.

In no small way, he served as a crucial link between the blues and rock and roll. While on staff at Chess Records as an arranger, Dixon produced, arranged and played bass on recording sessions for Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, and others.

Beyond his era, some of Dixon’s songs were popularized by rock groups, such as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. According to music writer Keith Shadwick, “Dixon’s combination of simple but effective rhythms and melodies with punchy cliché-free lyrics” continue to be interpreted and recorded by newer performers.

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William James “Willie” Dixon

July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992

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Beyond his era, some of Dixon’s songs were popularized by rock groups, such as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. According to music writer Keith Shadwick, “Dixon’s combination of simple but effective rhythms and melodies with punchy cliché-free lyrics” continue to be interpreted and recorded by newer performers.

VIDEOS

Rare footage / Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon / Bye Bye Blues

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1962 / Willie Dixon / Nervous / Recorded in Europe, accompanying him are Memphis Slim on piano, Jump Jackson on drums and T-Bone Walker on guitar.  

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1966 / Willie Dixon / Bassology

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Willie Dixon / Wang Dang Doodle / (Written for Howlin’ Wolf)

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Otis Rush / I Can’t Put You Down (written by Willie Dixon)

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Led Zeppelin / I Can’t Put You Down

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Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin

This is “You Need Love,” written by Willie Dixon and performed by Muddy Waters in 1962:

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And this is “Whole Lotta Love,” by Led Zeppelin in 1969:

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Dixon became aware of the Led Zeppelin song thanks to his daughter Shirley. When she was 13, Shirley heard a song she thought sounded familiar at her friend’s house. She asked her friend if she could borrow the album, and then played the song for her dad, who realized it had borrowed heavily from the lyrics and music of his song.

In 1987, Dixon won an out-of-court settlement over the song. Dixon is now officially credited, along with all four members of Led Zeppelin, and he used the money from the settlement to help support his Blues Heaven Foundation, which helps musicians preserve their royalties and music rights. Dixon died in 1992 but his daughter Shirley maintains the foundation.

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1983 / Willie Dixon with Stephen Stills / Back Door Man / Muddy Waters Tribute

 

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His Songs:

 

Included here is but a small sample of Willie Dixon’s most well-known songs, some of which were written for, or interpreted by a variety artists.

1954 / Willie Dixon / Hoochie Coochie Man / (Written for Muddy Waters)

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1954 / Willie Dixon / I Just Want To Make Love To You / (Written for Muddy Waters)

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1955 / Willie Dixon / My Babe / (Written for Little Walter)

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1956 / Willie Dixon / 29 Ways

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1956 / Dixon’s song “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was written as a vehicle to launch Otis Rush and Cobra Records, as it was the first single for both.

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1956 / Otis Rush / I Can’t Quit You Baby / #8 BB R&B chart /

Willie Dixon / I Can’t Quit You Baby /

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Led Zepplin / I Can’t Quit You Baby /

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1960 / Willie Dixon / Back Door Man / (Written for Howlin’ Wolf)

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1960 / Willie Dixon / Spoonful / (Written for Howlin’ Wolf)

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1961 / Willie Dixon / Little Red Rooster / (Written for Howlin’ Wolf)

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1962 / Bo Diddley / You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover / Written by Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon has been called “the poet laureate of the blues” and “the father of modern Chicago blues.” He was indisputably the pre-eminent blues songwriter of his era, credited with writing more than 500 songs by the end of his life. Moreover, Dixon is a towering figure in the history and creation of Chicago blues on other fronts.

BIO

Born in 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, young Willie began rhyming because his mother often rhymed things she said. He sang his first song at Springfield Baptist Church at the age of four.

In his youth he started writing songs. He was exposed to a variety of music – gospel, blues, country and western – that served as the seeds for the symbiotic music he would later make in Chicago.

Moving to the city in 1936, he had a brief career as a boxer and then skirmished with the U.S. Army, refusing induction on the grounds he was a conscientious objector. His early forays on the Chicago music scene included stints with the Five Breezes, the Four Jumps of Jive and the Big Three Trio, all of which made records. The Big Three Trio, in particular, are noteworthy for having brought harmony singing to the blues.

In 1948 Dixon signed with Chess Records as a bass playing session recording artist.

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Dixon really found his niche at Chess, where he was allowed to develop as an in-house songwriter. As time went on he began performing less, being more involved with administrative tasks for the label. By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer and also a talent scout.

Some of the now-classic songs he wrote for others during his lengthy tenure at Chess include “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I’m Ready” and “I Just Want to Make Love For You” (Muddy Waters); “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful” and “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “Wang Dang Doodle” (Howlin’ Wolf); and “My Babe” (Little Walter).

Although he didn’t write for Chuck Berry, Dixon played bass on most of his early records. For a few years in the late Fifties, he also wrote for and worked with artists on the crosstown Cobra label, including such fledgling bluesmen as Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam.

Dixon returned to Chess in 1959, and the Sixties saw the full flowering of his talents there. In addition to writing and producing some of his greatest works during that decade, he recorded a series of albums in a duet format with Memphis Slim on the Folkways, Verve and Battles labels. His first album, Willie’s Blues, was recorded with Memphis Slim in 1959. He appeared on more recordings with Memphis Slim before releasing his first solo album, I Am the Blues, in 1970.

Albums followed from him at more regular intervals in subsequent years, culminating in the 1988 release of Hidden Charms, which won Dixon a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording.

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Track Listing:

  1. Blues You Can’t Lose 5:44
  2. I Don’t Trust Myself 4:23
  3. Jungle Swing 5:27
  4. Don’t Mess With The Messer 7:10
  5. Study War No More 4:33
  6. I Love The Life I Live (I Live The Life I Love) 3:11
  7. I Cry For You 4:40
  8. Good Advice 5:13
  9. I Do The Job 6:22

In his later years, Willie Dixon became a tireless ambassador of the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation. The organization works to preserve the blues’ legacy and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past. Speaking with the simple eloquence that was a hallmark of his songs, Dixon put it like this: “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.”

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1977 / Willie Dixon / I Am The Blues

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1984 / Interview with Willie Dixon

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Willie Dixon published his autobiography, I Am the Blues, in 1989 – a year after Chess Records released Willie Dixon: The Chess Box, a two-disc set that included Dixon’s greatest songs as performed by the artists who’d made them famous – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Lowell Fulson – and Dixon himself.

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1994 / Chuck Berry inducts Willie Dixon into the Hall Of Fame

List of songs written by Willie Dixon

Title First recorded
by
Year Subsequently recorded by
“29 Ways” Willie Dixon 1956 Koko Taylor, Marc Cohn, The Blues Band
“As Long as I Have You” Little Walter 1960 The Ford Blues Band, John P. Hammond, George Thorogood
“Back Door Man” Howlin’ Wolf 1960 The Doors, Grateful Dead, Shadows of Knight, Bob Weir, The Blues Project, The Blues Band
“The Big Boat” aka “Somebody Tell that Woman” Big Three Trio 1955 Peter, Paul and Mary
“Bring It On Home” Sonny Boy Williamson II 1963 Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Dread Zeppelin, Johnny Thunders, Widespread Panic, Hawkwind, Canned Heat
“Built for Comfort” Willie Dixon 1959 Howlin’ Wolf, Canned Heat, UFO, Juicy Lucy, Dana Gillespie
“Close to You” Muddy Waters 1958 Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Doors
“Crazy for My Baby” Willie Dixon 1955 Little Walter, Colin James, Charlie Musselwhite
“Crazy Love” Buddy Guy 1967
“Crazy Mixed Up World” Little Walter 1959
“Dead Presidents” Little Walter 1963 The J. Geils Band
“Diddy Wah Diddy” Bo Diddley 1955 Captain Beefheart, The Remains, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Blues Band
“Do Me Right” Lowell Fulson 1955 Willie Dixon
“Do the Do” Howlin’ Wolf 1962 Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs
“Don’t Go No Further” Muddy Waters 1956 The Doors, B.B. King, John P. Hammond
“Don’t You Tell Me Nothin'” Willie Dixon 1986 used in the film The Color of Money
“Down in the Bottom” Howlin’ Wolf 1961 Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, John P. Hammond, Siegel-Schwall Band, Barry McGuire
“Eternity” Grateful Dead 1992
“Everything but You” Jimmy Witherspoon 1959
“Evil” Howlin’ Wolf 1954 Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, Monster Magnet, Luther Allison, Derek and the Dominos, Gary Moore, Cactus, The Faces, Steve Miller, Koko Taylor, Jeff Healy, Tom Jones
“Groanin’ the Blues” Otis Rush 1957 Eric Clapton
“Help Me” Sonny Boy Williamson II 1963 Ten Years After, Charlie Musselwhite, Canned Heat, Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Johnny Winter, James Cotton
“Hidden Charms” Charles Clark 1958 Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray, Elvis Costello
“Hoochie Coochie Man” Muddy Waters 1954 Willie Dixon, Shadows of Knight, Eric Burdon, The Nashville Teens, Dion, The Allman Brothers Band, Alexis Korner, Steppenwolf, Chuck Berry, Motörhead, Eric Clapton, John P. Hammond, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Healey, Manfred Mann, New York Dolls, Dave van Ronk, Phish
“Howlin’ for My Baby” Howlin’ Wolf 1959 George Thorogood
“I Ain’t Superstitious” Howlin’ Wolf 1961 The Jeff Beck Group, Grateful Dead, Megadeth, Chris Spedding, The White Stripes, The Yardbirds, Howlin’ Wolf
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” Otis Rush 1956 Little Milton, Willie Dixon, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Led Zeppelin, Gary Moore, Dread Zeppelin, Nine Below Zero
“I Can’t Understand” (co-written with Cesar Rojas) Los Lobos 1990
“I Don’t Play” Little Walter 1960 Robben Ford
“I Got My Brand on You” Muddy Waters 1960 Alexis Korner
“I Got What It Takes” Koko Taylor 1964
“I Just Want to Make Love to You” Muddy Waters 1954 Willie Dixon, 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 Blood, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, The Righteous Brothers, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke
“I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love” Muddy Waters 1956 Willie Nelson, John P. Hammond, Mose Allison
“I Want to Be Loved” Muddy Waters 1955 The Rolling Stones
“I’m a Natural Born Lover” Muddy Waters 1954
“I’m Ready” Muddy Waters 1954 Humble Pie, Buddy Guy, Aerosmith, Long John Baldry, Eric Burdon, George Thorogood, Albert King, John P. Hammond, Carey Bell, The Blues Band, Luther Johnson
“If the Sea Was Whiskey” Big Three Trio 1947 Chris Thile and the How to Grow a Band
“Insane Asylum” Koko Taylor 1968 Kathi McDonald & Sly Stone, Diamanda Galás, Asylum Street Spankers, The Detroit Cobras, Oxbow & Marianne Faithfull
“It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” Willie Dixon 1984 Styx
“Let Me Love You Baby” Buddy Guy 1961 Koko Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Muddy Waters, B.B. King
“Little Baby” Howlin’ Wolf 1961 The Rolling Stones, The Blues Project
“Little Red Rooster” Howlin’ Wolf 1961 Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Luther Allison, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Big Mama Thornton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
“Mellow Down Easy” Little Walter 1954 Cactus, Paul Butterfield, The Black Crowes, Carey Bell, ZZ Top, Jimmy Reed, Holly Golightly, John P. Hammond
“Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane” aka “Earthquake and Hurricane” Willie Dixon 1978 Tina Turner
“Move Me” Willie Dixon 1959
“My Babe” Little Walter 1955 Sonny Boy Williamson, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Lonnie Mack, Spencer Davis Group, John P. Hammond, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, The Remains, Othar Turner, James Cotton, Bo Diddley, Memphis Slim
“My Baby’s Sweeter” Little Walter 1959 Fleetwood Mac
“My Love Will Never Die” Big Three Trio 1952 Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Robben Ford
“Nervous” Willie Dixon 1959 Andre van Duin (as a parody, in Dutch)
“Oh Baby” Little Walter 1954
“Pain in My Heart” Willie Dixon 1955
“Pretty Thing” Bo Diddley 1956 Pretty Things, Canned Heat
“The Same Thing” Muddy Waters 1964 Willie Dixon, George Thorogood, The Allman Brothers Band, Sue Foley, Marc Ford, Grateful Dead, The Band, Louisiana Red, Eddie C. Campbell
“The Seventh Son” Willie Mabon 1956 Mose Allison, Bill Haley, Johnny Rivers, Sting, Climax Blues Band, Long John Baldry, Remo Four, Georgie Fame, John P. Hammond
“Shake for Me” Howling Wolf 1961 Stevie Ray Vaughan, John P. Hammond
“Sittin’ and Cryin’ the Blues” aka “Sit and Cry (The Blues)” Buddy Guy 1958 Willie Dixon
“Spider in My Stew” Buster Benton 1974 Magic Slim
“Spoonful” Howlin’ Wolf 1960 Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Shadows of Knight, Dion, Paul Butterfield, Cream, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, The Who, Etta James, Salty Dog, Delbert McClinton, Allman Joys, Gil Evans
“Study War No More” Willie Dixon 1989
“Talk to Me Baby” aka “I Can’t Hold Out” Elmore James 1960 Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton
“Third Degree” Eddie Boyd 1953 Willie Dixon, Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Johnny Winter
“Three Hundred Pounds of Joy” Howlin’ Wolf 1963 Tom Jones & Jools Holland, Blues Brothers, Dana Gillespie
“Tollin’ Bells” Lowell Fulson 1956 Savoy Brown, Robert Cray, Paul Butterfield, Robert Cray
“Too Late” Little Walter 1953 Little Milton
“Too Many Cooks” Jessie Fortune 1961 Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Mick Jagger
“Violent Love” Big Three Trio 1951 Otis Rush, Oingo Boingo, Dr. Feelgood, Skankin’ Pickle
“Wang Dang Doodle” Howlin’ Wolf 1960 Koko Taylor, Grateful Dead, Savoy Brown, Box Tops, PJ Harvey, Rufus Thomas, The Pointer Sisters, The Blues Band, Widespread Panic, Warren Zevon, Dave Edmunds
“Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” Willie Dixon 1964 Great White, Widespread Panic
“What in the World You Goin’ to Do” John Littlejohn 1968
“When My Left Eye Jumps” Buddy Guy 1967
“When the Lights Go Out” Jimmy Witherspoon 1954 Kim Wilson
“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” Bo Diddley 1962 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, Tom Rush, The Rolling Stones, John P. Hammond, Dion Dimucci, Delbert McClinton
“You Know My Love” Otis Rush 1960 Gary Moore, Anson Funderburgh
“You Need Love” Muddy Waters 1962 Candye Kane, Savoy Brown, The Small Faces
“You Shook Me” Muddy Waters 1962 Willie Dixon, Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Dread Zeppelin
“You’ll Be Mine” Howlin’ Wolf 1961 Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dr. Feelgood, John P. Hammond
“Young Fashioned Ways” Muddy Waters 1955 Koko Taylor