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The Turnaround - Willie Dixon

This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.

Last week, we got down with the Back Door Man himself, Howlin’ Wolf. 

This week, we’ll bring it on home with Willie Dixon.

Here’s what we know: William James Dixon was born on July 1, 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was introduced to music at a young age through his mother, who often spoke in rhymes (a habit Dixon picked up and retained the rest of his life), singing at the Springfield Baptist Church, spending a little time on the prison farm in his teens, singing with a local carpenter that led a gospel quintet and with Leonard Caston, who went to the same gym as Dixon.

Willie Dixon moved to Chicago in 1936 and got into boxing. He won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Novice Division Championship in 1937 and was Joe Louis’ sparring partner for a time.

In 1939, he founded a music group, the Five Breezes, but this was short-lived. In 1941, Dixon was arrested for refusing military service as a conscientious objector based on his feelings about America’s institutionalized racism.

In 1945 Willie Dixon’s next group, the Big Three Trio, was signed to Bullet Records and to Columbia Records in ‘47.  In 1948, the Big Three broke up and Dixon began working full-time for Chess Records as a recording artist, session musician, producer, talent scout, and songwriter. Over the next few decades, Dixon was a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in the Chicago blues world. Notable songs attributed to Dixon include: “Little Red Rooster”, “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “Back Door Man”, “Bring It On Home”, “Evil”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “The Seventh Son”, “Spoonful”, “Whole Lotta Love”, and “You Shook Me” just to name a few. He played upright bass alongside legends like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Absolute. Powerhouse.

Later in his career, especially after the electric bass began taking precedence over the acoustic upright Dixon was familiar with, he began advocating for blues musicians who had been exploited in the past with the Blues Heaven Foundation, securing copyrights and royalties for them and their families, and promoting the preservation of the legacy of the blues as a whole, stating “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.”

Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dixon’s health declined, mostly due to diabetes, and he died of heart failure on January 29, 1992. Willie Dixon was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Chuck Berry as an Early Influence in 1994.

Without Willie Dixon, it’s hard to imagine the blues rising to prominence outside of the local Chicago and Deep South scenes. So much of its legacy is due to Dixon’s songwriting, eye for upcoming talent, and activism in preserving the blues. Willie Dixon was an exceptional performer, but it’s largely his backstage work that made the biggest impact. The music of the western world today would not be the same without his influence. Thank you, Willie Dixon.

For Willie Dixon, “we’re going to drink a little whiskey, brother, after a while” — something full-bodied, classy, and ubiquitous like Mr. Dixon. Maker’s Mark will have you thinking that “if the sea was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I’d dive to the bottom, and I don’t know if I’d come up”.

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