Along with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon defined the sound of Chicago blues. A prolific song-writer, particularly during the years when Chess Records were at their peak, his songs were performed by a who’s who of blues royalty, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. His Little Red Rooster and I Just Want to Make Love to You were both recorded by the Rolling Stones, the former with the distinction of being the only blues song to reach No.1 on the UK singles charts (1964).
Willie Dixon knew what the blues were all about, having been incarcerated for minor offences on two occasions in Mississippi, the first when he was only 12. In his book, I Am the Blues. he says, “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.”
On another occasion, Dixon served thirty days at the Harvey Allen County Farm, near the infamous Parchman Farm prison, he saw prisoners mistreated and beaten. Those, he said who were “running the farm didn’t have no mercy – you talk about mean, ignorant, evil, stupid and crazy. This was the first time I saw a man beat to death.” Dixon too was cruelly treated receiving a blow to his head that made him deaf for about four years.
Dixon arrived in Chicago from Mississippi in 1936, and after a boxing career, singing in a gospel group and in a successful trio, he ended up working for Chess Records, producing, arranging, leading the studio band, and playing bass. His first big break came when Muddy Waters recorded his Hoochie Coochie Man in 1954, which became his biggest hit, Dixon going on to become Chess’s top song-writer.
Dixon eventually recorded his own version of some of these blues songs that he’d written for others to perform in his 6th album in 1970, an album which eventually was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986. I Am The Blues, which shares the title with Dixon’s autobiography, has nine of Dixon’s best songs, including Hoochie Coochie Man, Spoonful, Little Red Rooster and I Can’t Quit You Baby.
Produced by Abner Spector, the album features Willie Dixon (vocals and bass), Walter Horton (harmonica), Lafayette Leake & Sunnyland Slim (Piano), Johnny Shines (guitar), and Clifton James (drums).
Dixon proves himself to be a fine blues vocalist throughout. He arrives growling, Howlin’ Wolf-style, on the first track, Back Door Man, shows fine control on the slow I Can’t Quit You Baby, adds a playful note on The Seventh Son, and gives The Little Red Rooster a nice barnyard feel. You don’t feel in any way like you’re short changed from versions of songs by the artists who made the songs famous.
The arrangements throughout give room for each of the fine instrumentalists. Lafayette Leake’s and Sunnyland Slim’s piano work is very cool and never feels overbearing. The piano and bass driving Hoochie Coochie Man gives it a slightly different feel from the Muddy Waters version, and provides a nice counterpoint to the harmonica riff. Walter Horton’s expressive and sweet harmonica weaves in an out of the songs expertly – Dixon said the shy, gentle Horton was the best harmonica player he ever heard. Johnny Shines adds some nice guitar work along the way, especially on I Can’t Quit You Baby and The Same Thing.
Overall, it’s classic Chicago blues, with artists at the top of their game, seemingly really enjoying themselves in the recording process. It’s a piece of blues – and indeed, given the debt it owes to Willie Dixon, rock’n’roll history.
Dixon once said, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits…The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”
Dixon’s legacy is found not only in the blues songs he composed recorded by the likes of Waters and Wolf, or in this gem of an album we’ve been looking at, but in the way his songs were covered by major rock’n’roll artists and influenced their output.