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Remembering Willie Dixon ... in his own words

You can’t tell the full story of modern blues and modern popular music without highlighting Willie Dixon, who passed away on this day 30 years ago at the age of 76.

Artists such as Buddy Guy have made a commitment to “keeping the blues alive.” But that challenge involves much more than the music itself. It’s also vital to retell the stories of the pioneering blues artists and the behind-the-scenes experts who laid the groundwork -- not only for blues and rock and roll, but also for much of the popular music we all enjoy today.

Willie Dixon was both kinds of pioneer.

The park next to the old Chess Records Studio (2120 S. Michigan Ave.) where the Blues Heaven Foundation holds live music shows and other events

How important were he and those others artists? As I said in a column in NewCity a year ago: “Their collective influence is so fundamental that if you removed it, the music we all love today would collapse like a Jenga tower.”

As “poet laureate of the blues,” Dixon anchored Chess Records’ second-floor studio on Chicago’s south side, a room that Keith Richards once called “the perfect sound studio … the room where everything we’d listened to was made.”

Yet none of what you just read begins to do justice to Willie Dixon and his enduring influence. You will find his songwriting credits – some awarded long after the recordings were originally made – on the debut albums of Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, Canned Heat, the Butterfield Blues Band, Cream, and many others. He played bass on the songs that launched Chuck Berry’s career. He held a kaleidoscope of roles, from producer to songwriter, to talent scout and executive, to spokesperson and advocate for blues and the artists who keep the genre alive. Along the way he won a Grammy Award, and was inducted the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015.

Dixon also founded Blues Heaven, a foundation based in Chicago which offers business advice for musicians, offers classes, and hosts concerts in the small park next to the famous 2120 South Michigan Ave. headquarters of Chess Records. That building now houses an excellent museum which you can tour again when the pandemic restrictions subside.

If you visit Chicago and have even the slightest interest in the history of rock and roll or blues, you should add Blues Heaven to your “to do” list. The posters, videos, and exhibits will give you a rich and entertaining introduction to blues. They include a dress worn by Koko Taylor and the bass that Willie Dixon played.

Perhaps the best way to explore Willie Dixon’s life and legacy is to read his own words. The excerpts below come from an interview I conducted with him by phone in spring 1986. The full interview originally appeared in NewCity, which was then a bi-weekly newspaper in Chicago’s South Loop, and is reprinted with permission in my book "Blues Flashbacks".

Willie Dixon on his role in modern music …

“You never get credit for anything you do, but I feel like I had a portion to do with it [the birth of rock].

“The original blues was all 12-bar, but l put intros into blues metal, and reached out of 12 bars to give people a better chance to tell a full story about the facts of life, which is the blues. It gave us a better variety. We could make a complete song and give a better understanding. I learned that from my father: if you don't put meaning into it, it don’t mean nothing.”

… on Chicago’s importance …

“Chicago is the only city that has given recognition to the blues. That’s why people all over call it the ‘blues capital.’ Everyone in the blues would go through Chicago one way or another because they could get recognition in Chicago. And that’s been going on for years. In the south they would think ‘If I can get to Chicago I can make it.’ We would have house parties, play in the street to make a living."

… on Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley …

“When Chuck first came to Chess he had several songs. Leonard [Chess] was out of town so Phil [Chess] and I listened to him and we liked him. He had a song called ‘Maybellene’ and at that time it had more of a country and western sound, so we talked to him about changing it. He goes back to St. Louis, and then he comes back and records ‘Maybellene’ for us.

“I played on all of Chuck's first songs, then after a while they added other instruments, because then they had more than one track to doctor them up. We would practice a long time on different things, and did all that stuff like ‘Roll Over Beethoven.’ During most sessions, if things got going good, we’d just keep on recording to get the best everyone had, even if we weren’t going to use it right away.

“A little after that, Bo Diddley came. I saw him on the street, along 43rd and 47th. He was just jamming and passing the hat. So we told him to come over to Chess. After we listened to him two or three times, we decided to record. He did ‘l'm A Man’ and it took off.”

… on empathy and getting along …

“Blues is necessary because we need to have a better understanding with each other. You know, the world is hungry for the blues, but doesn’t know it. It’s like a vitamin that a man doesn’t know he needs. When you get the blues, and you understand the wisdom of the blues, you get a better understanding of other people.”

… on the Blues Heaven Foundation …

“Blues Heaven is a foundation which is still trying to get donations and to market the blues. But we also help those people who don’t understand the business and help the people who don’t know how to protect their songs. Some of these musicians never had a chance to be seen, and were never properly advertised. There are a lot of people who are dedicated to the music, and would rather starve to death than not play the blues. I feel practically the same way.”

… on his accomplishments and legacy

We never actually thought we were making history – we were just advancing the idea of the blues. My Dad said that the blues seemed to have a reasonable sound, but he knew that it hadn’t been properly advanced. I still feel today that if it got as much airplay, it would be as popular as other kinds of music.”

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC. His book "Blues Flashbacks", available on Amazon, includes the full interview with Willie Dixon as well as full-length interviews with B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, and other blues greats.

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