Willie Dixon was an American blues musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, and record producer who played a vital role in shaping the post-World War II sound of the Chicago blues. He wrote and produced many classic blues songs that have been recorded by countless artists across genres and generations. He was also a champion of musicians’ rights and a founder of the Blues Heaven Foundation.
Early Life and Career
Willie Dixon was born on July 1, 1915, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He grew up in a musical family, as his mother wrote religious poetry and he sang in a gospel quartet. He was also influenced by the blues musicians he heard on the radio and in local juke joints. He taught himself to play the guitar, harmonica, and piano.
Dixon moved to Chicago in 1936, where he worked as a boxer, a waiter, and a nightclub bouncer. He also started playing the upright bass and joined various bands, including the Five Breezes and the Big Three Trio. He became a regular performer on the Chicago blues scene, working with artists such as Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson.
Chess Records and Cobra Records
In 1951, Dixon joined Chess Records as a session musician, songwriter, arranger, and producer. He became the main creative force behind the label’s success, crafting songs for its roster of blues stars such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. Some of his most famous compositions include “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man”, “You Shook Me”, “You Need Love”, “Wang Dang Doodle”, and “The Seventh Son”. He also recorded several albums under his own name, such as Willie’s Blues (1959), I Am the Blues (1970), and Willie Dixon’s Peace? (1971).
In 1956, Dixon left Chess Records briefly to work for Cobra Records, a rival label founded by his friend Eli Toscano. There he helped launch the careers of new talents such as Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Harold Burrage. He wrote and produced some of the most influential songs of the West Side blues style, such as “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)”, “Double Trouble”, and “My Love Will Never Die”. However, Cobra Records folded in 1959 after Toscano’s death.
Later Years and Legacy
Dixon returned to Chess Records in 1960 and continued to work there until 1969. During this period, he witnessed the rise of the British blues boom and the rock and roll explosion, which brought his songs to a wider audience. Many British and American rock bands covered his songs or adapted them for their own use. Some of the most notable examples are the Rolling Stones’ versions of “Little Red Rooster” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Led Zeppelin’s versions of “You Shook Me” and “Whole Lotta Love” (based on Dixon’s “You Need Love”), Cream’s version of “Spoonful”, Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Killing Floor” (based on Dixon’s “The Killing Floor”), and the Doors’ version of “Back Door Man”.
Dixon also toured extensively in the 1960s and 1970s with his own band, the Chicago Blues All-Stars. He performed at various festivals and venues around the world, including the Newport Folk Festival , the American Folk Blues Festival , Carnegie Hall , Montreux Jazz Festival , and Wembley Stadium . He also collaborated with other artists such as Willie Mabon , Koko Taylor , Johnny Winter , John Lee Hooker , Albert King , B.B. King , Eric Clapton , Paul Butterfield , Jeff Beck , and Jerry Garcia .
In 1977, Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over their use of his songs without proper credit or compensation. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 198