The Five Breezes My Buddy BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
The Four Jumps Of JiveIt's Just The Blues The Mercury Blues 'n' Rhythm Story
Rosetta HowardToo Many Drivers Rosetta Howard 1939-1947
Willie DixonWalking The BluesThe Chess Box Set
Memphis Slim & Willie DixonStewballSongs of Memphis Slim & Willie Dixon
Memphis Slim & Willie DixonCrazy For My BabyAmerican Folk Blues Festival 1962-1965
Lowell FulsonTollin' BellsThe Chess Box Set
Muddy WatersClose To YouThe Chess Box Set
Howlin' Wolf Evil (Is Going On)The Chess Box Set
Howlin' Wolf Hidden CharmsThe Chess Box Set
Jimmy Witherspoon When The Lights Go OutThe Chess Box Set
Koko Taylor What Came First the Egg or the Hen
What It Takes: The Chess Years
Sonny Boy WilliamsonBring It On HomeThe Chess Box Set
Little Walter Dead PresidentsThe Chess Box Set
Muddy WatersWee, Wee BabyBlues From Big Bill's Copacabana
The Big Three TrioIf the Sea Was WhiskeyThe Big Three Trio
The Big Three TrioI Ain't Gonna Be Your Monkey ManThe Big Three Trio
The Big Three Trio88 BoogieThe Big Three Trio
Buster BentonSpider In My Stew Mr. Dixon's Workshop
George "Wild Child" Butler Axe And The WindMr. Dixon's Workshop
Jessie FortuneToo Many CooksMr. Dixon's Workshop
Buddy GuySit And Cry (The Blues)Mr. Dixon's Workshop
Lee JacksonFishin' In My Pond Mr. Dixon's Workshop
Magic SamEasy Baby Mr. Dixon's Workshop
Otis RushMy Love Will Never DieMr. Dixon's Workshop
Willie DixonSeventh SonI Am The Blues
Willie DixonI Don't Trust Nobody Catalyst
Larry Johnson Put It All In ThereThe All Star Blues World Of Maestro Willie Dixon
Willie DixonWang Dang DoodleLive At Richard's, Atlanta, GA, 1973

Show Notes:

For four decades, Willie Dixon loomed at the forefront of Chicago blues, working as a bassist, arranger, band leader, producer, talent scout, agent, A&R man, and music publisher. His most enduring contributions, though, were the songs he wrote; songs like Little Red Rooster", "Hoochie Coochie Man", "Evil", "Spoonful", "Back Door Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You", "I Ain't Superstitious", "My Babe", "Wang Dang Doodle", "Bring It On Home", "I'm Ready" and many others. On today's program we bounce around through Dixon's long career. From his formative years we spin sides from his early combos The Five Breezes, The Four Jumps of Jive and The Big Three Trio. We spotlight his tenure at Chess records playing many of his compositions as recorded by others, some of his own sides for the label and his contributions to Cobra Records where Otis Rush and Magic Sam got their start. The emphasis being on some of his lesser know compositions. We also spin sides from Dixon's albums from the 60's and 70's plus a batch of fine live recordings.

Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915 to Anderson Bell and Daisy (McKenzie) Dixon. As a youth, Dixon heard a variety of blues, Dixieland, and ragtime musicians performing on the streets, at picnics and other community functions, and in the clubs near his home, where he would listen to them from the sidewalk. His mother, Daisy, was a great poet who often rhymed the things she said, which was a habit that Dixon soon adopted. The family of seven children lived behind the small restaurant that Daisy ran, which was next door to Curley’s Barrelhouse.  Listening from the street, Dixon, then about eight years old, heard bluesmen Little Brother Montgomery and Charley Patton perform there, along with a variety of ragtime and Dixieland piano players.  He became an admirer of the band that featured pianist Little Brother Montgomery, and would follow him around Vicksburg as he played on the back of a pickup truck.

The Five Breezes

Dixon was only twelve when he first landed in jail and was sent to a county farm for stealing some fixtures from an old torn-down house. He recalled in I Am the Blues: “That’s when I really learned about the blues. I had heard ‘em with the music and took ‘em to be an enjoyable thing but after I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these really down-to-earth blues, I began to inquire about ‘em…. I really began to find out what the blues meant to black people, how it gave them consolation to be able to think these things over and sing them to themselves or let other people know what they had in mind and how they resented various things in life.”

In 1936, Dixon left Mississippi and headed to Chicago.  He had worked several odd jobs to try and make ends meet.  He soon took up boxing, as he was a man of considerable stature, at 6 and a half feet and weighing over 250 pounds.  In 1937, he was so successful as a boxer, and won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division).  Dixon turned professional as a boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis’ sparring partner. After four fights, Dixon left boxing after getting into a fight with his manager over being cheated out of money.

Throughout the late 1930's, Dixon was singing in Chicago with various gospel groups, some of which performed on the radio. Dixon had received good training in vocal harmony from Theo Phelps back in Vicksburg, where he sang bass with the Union Jubilee Singers. Around the same time, Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston gave Dixon his first musical instrument–a makeshift bass made out of an oil can and one string. Dixon, Caston, and some other musicians formed a group called the Five Breezes. The Five Breezes had four records released on Bluebird, recorded on November 15th, 1940 and released in January 1941.

Big Three Trio

Dixon next recording opportunity was with The Four Jumps of Jive, a quartet formed by Dixon in late 1945, with Gene Gilmore, Bernardo Dennis, and Ellis Hunter. They recorded four sides for Mercury Records in 1945. Gilmore and Hunter left the group in 1946 and Leonard Caston came into the lineup, which was christened the Big Three Trio. The group was modeled after other popular black vocal groups of the time, such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. Dixon by this time was singing and playing a regular upright bass. While Chicago blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Little Walter were playing to all-black audiences in small clubs, the Big Three Trio played large show clubs with capacities of three to five thousand. Sharing vocal (they specialized in three-part harmonies), the trio signed with the Bullet label in 1946 for a one session jumping to Columbia Records in 1947. They had one national hit, "You Sure Look Good to Me," in 1948, and a slew of other releases that stretched into 1952. After several years of successful touring and recording, the Big Three Trio disbanded. Many of Dixon’s compositions were never recorded by the trio, but these songs turned up later in the repertoire of the blues artists Dixon worked with in the 1950s.

Leonard and Phil Chess began recording the blues in the late 1940's, and by 1950 the Chess brothers were releasing blues records on the label bearing their name. Many of the blues songs recorded at Chess were written, arranged, and produced by Willie Dixon. Dixon was first used on recording sessions by the Chess brothers in the late 1940s, as his schedule allowed. After the Big Three Trio disbanded, Dixon became a full-time employee of Chess. He performed a variety of duties, including producing, arranging, leading the studio band, and playing bass. Dixon’s first big break as a songwriter came when Muddy Waters recorded his “Hoochie Coochie Man” in 1954. When “Hoochie Coochie Man” became Waters’ biggest hit, reaching number three on the rhythm and blues charts, Dixon became the label’s top songwriter. In 1955 Dixon charted his first Number One hit when Little Walter recorded “My Babe.”

In 1957 Dixon joined the small independent Cobra Records, where he recorded such bluesmen as Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam, creating what became known as the “West Side Sound.” His “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was a Top Ten rhythm and blues hit for Otis Rush, but Cobra Records soon faced financial difficulties. By 1959 Dixon was back at Chess as a full-time employee.

In 1959 Dixon teamed up with an old friend, pianist Memphis Slim, to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. They continued to play together at coffee houses and folk clubs throughout the country and eventually became key players in a folk and blues revival. Thy recorded several albums together including Willie's Blues, Blues Every Which Way, Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie Dixon", Memphis Slim & Willie Dixon At The Village Gate and In Paris.

Dixon began internationalizing the blues when he went to England with Memphis Slim in 1960. Dixon performed as part of the first American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe in 1962. Organized by German blues fans Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau, the festival also included Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and other blues musicians. The festival ran from 1962 through 1971 and helped the blues reach an audience of young Europeans. American blues musicians soon found they could make more money playing in Europe than in Chicago. They played in concert halls and were reportedly treated like royalty. Dixon played on the tour for three years, then became the Chicago contact for Lippmann and Rau in booking blues musicians for the tour. Several of Dixon's performances with Memphis Slim, and backing others have been issued on record.

Toward the end of the 1960s soul music eclipsed the blues in black record sales. Chess Records’ last major hit was Koko Taylor’s 1966 recording of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” Many prominent bluesmen had died, including Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and J.B. Lenoir. Chess Records was sold in 1969, and Dixon recorded his last session for the label in 1970.

During the 60's and 70's Dixon was involved with labels such as USA, Chief, Supreme and Jewel. Notable records for these labels included "I'm The Fixer" for Willie Mabon, "Too Many Cooks" for Jesse Fortune and "Two-Headed Woman" for Junior Wells. Another artist Dixon was involved in with was Buster Benton. By 1959 Benton  was leading his own band in Chicago. During the 1960s, local record labels, such as Melloway, Alteen, Sonic, and Twinight Records released several Benton singles, before in 1971 he joined Willie Dixon. Benton became a fixture in Dixon's Blues All-Stars for some time. Dixon was credited as the songwriter of Benton's best known song, "Spider in My Stew" which we feature today. Released on the Shreveport-based Jewel Records label, it gave Benton a modicum of fame.

Dixon revived his career as a performer by forming the Chicago Blues All-Stars in 1969 (Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim, “Shakey” Horton, Clifton James, and Dixon on bass and vocals). The group recorded the album Loaded With Blues, which despite the top notch lineup, was rather lackluster. Throughout the 1970s and 80's Dixon continued to write new songs, record other artists, and released several  albums including I Am The Blues, Willie Dixon's Peace, Catalyst, What Happened To My Blues, Hidden Charms and others. Dixon's albums under his own are rather uneven despite boasting top drawer bands. Among the best is  1973's Catalyst which I don't believe has been issued on CD and boats a lineup of Louis Satterfield, Morris Jennings, "Mighty" Joe Young, Phil Upchurch, Carey Bell, Buster Benton and Lafayette Leake. There are a few good unofficial live recordings from this period; the best being one from Richard's in Atlanta from 1973 and one from 1974 which is a radio broadcast of a club date at Chicago's Quiet Knight. Also from this period is The All Star Blues World Of Maestro Willie Dixon issued on Victoria Spivey's Spivey label in 1973 and boasting excellent performances (Dixon plays bass) by Carey Bell, Buster Benton and Larry Johnson. Dixon also appeared on a few other Spivey albums.

In the 1980's, Dixon relocated to Los Angeles to escape the cold Chicago winters in an effort to better his health.  He had also established the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing scholarship awards and musical instruments to poorly funded schools. Dixon’s final two albums were well received, with the 1988 album Hidden Charms winning a Grammy Award for best traditional blues recording.  In 1989 he recorded the soundtrack for the film Ginger Ale Afternoon, which also was nominated for a Grammy. Dixon died in 1992 at the age of 76. More information on Dixon can be found in the following books: I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story written by Dixon and Don Snowden and Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues written by Mitsutoshi Inaba which was issued in 2011.