OA Rock Cersario Column May 15, 2009
If you are a fan of the blues and/or rock ’n’ roll you probably know who Willie Dixon is.
If you don’t know who Dixon is, you will if you keep reading.
To put it in perspective, in my opinion, Dixon is the Bob Dylan of the blues and, in many ways, greatly responsible for the birth of rock ’n’ roll.
Dixon’s songs helped to define the careers of several prominent blues musicians including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Etta James and Buddy Guy.
Dixon wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime, and many of those have been covered hundreds of times, many by rock ’n’ roll bands.
The first time I heard of Dixon, I was 11 or 12 years old reading the back of the first Led Zeppelin record and wondering who this Dixon guy was who wrote “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” He was not in the band?
Led Zeppelin correctly gave Dixon credit for those two songs, but in the late 1970s, Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Bring It on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love” from “Led Zeppelin II.” Both cases resulted in out-of-court settlements that rewarded Dixon over a million dollars.
When we first opened Triple Play Records, I purchased the Willie Dixon LP Box set on Chess Records and literally memorized the booklet that came with it. That is how I first learned about the great Dixon. I have been a fan ever since.
Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1915 and grew up listening to, among others, Little Brother Montgomery, a piano player who would be driven with his piano to gigs on the back of a flatbed truck, where he usually played from.
Dixon started writing songs and playing in a band as a teenager. Eventually, he made his way to Chicago, where he became a state champion heavyweight Golden Gloves boxer.
Fortunately for all of us, he decided to pursue a music career, and by 1950 he was entrenched at Chess Records in Chicago as a producer, songwriter, bassist and singer.
The early results of this were several songs that would become signature songs for the first artists who performed them. The first few included “Hoochie Coochie Man” for Muddy Waters,
“Evil” for Howlin’ Wolf and “My Babe” for Little Walter.
Besides Led Zeppelin, many more artists in rock ’n’ roll to blues-rock genres have covered songs written by Dixon.
Besides Muddy Watters, “Hoochie Coochie Man” has been covered by the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Manfred Mann and Motorhead among others.
“My Babe,” one of Little Walter’s biggest hits, was covered by numerous bands including the Animals, Deep Purple, Foghat, the Coasters and Elvis Presley.
Howlin’ Wolf is joined by Jeff Healy, Cactus, Canned Heat, Derek and the Dominoes and the Faces in artists covering “Evil.”
Dixon also wrote “Spoonful,” which was covered by Cream, Climax Blues Band, Allman Joys, Dion, Gov’t Mule, Ten Years After, Jose Feliciano and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
The Doors’ “Backdoor Man” also was penned by Dixon.
There are many more blues musicians whose songs are rock ’n’ roll staples, which I will address in another column, but Dixon truly was a pioneer and his legacy continues to grow.