"The Pen is Mightier............."
Willie Dixon. I had the tremendous good fortune to sit and talk with
him on several occasions during the 1980's, and he never failed to amaze,
entertain and enlighten me. During those years you couldn't go into
a Southern California club, blues venue or attend a music festival without
seeing the man surrounded by an entourage of adoring friends and fans.
He was finally acknowledging his role as blues ambassador and accepting
it with his natural ease and grace. Willie Dixon had become everybody's
favorite uncle; the elder statesman whose dues had all been paid.
As a bluesman who had been there and done that, Willie
lived his life exactly like he wrote songs; simply, without pretension
and at gut level. A huge man both in girth and talent, he became a voice
for the broken man and the troubled woman. He had a genuine gift for
musical arrangement and composition and is, to this day, still considered
one of the blues' most prolific songwriters. He was incredibly intuitive
when it came to pairing songs with musicians and musicians with sessions,
then successfully capturing on vinyl, the best from both. Just look
through any of the Chess or Cobra libraries.
As a studio producer, songwriter, session player and
stage performer, Dixon had few peers. His remarkable body of work remains
the watermark for today's generation of blues players. A keen ear for
talent and ribald sense of humor made him versatile, but Willie's observations
of the human condition and flair for innuendo, made him legendary.
Born seventh in a line of fourteen Dixon children, Willie
could trace his education and understanding of the blues directly to
his family upbringing. "One of the phrases my parents used to
teach me, especially my mother, 'Think twice before you speak once,
and think the third time before you act.' And another thing she always
said was, 'Anybody can get mad, but anybody can't get smart. It pays
to get smart but it don't pay to get mad.' When I was a youngster I
couldn't understand it because it didn't make sense. But today it makes
sense because the world can make anybody mad."
"Another thing, 'If you don't listen you can't
learn' and those are three things in life that a person have to do to
really understand and learn to enjoy life, because if people make you
angry you will never enjoy it. And these are the kind of things that
had a great influence on me after I got grown, even though I knew them
as a youngster." Shaking his head, he admitted, "But many
a-times I done things without thinking."
THE TRUE FACTS OF LIFE
Willie had the unique ability to relate life's experience
through his music. A twelve bar documentary of the world around him.
"That's why I wrote so many songs, because I've been writing about
the true facts of life that exist today and what I hope, tomorrow, will
be a better future. I've been writing songs all my life, you know? I
used to walk around with a gunny sack full of songs. I couldn't get
nobody to do them. I used to sell them outright for $10."
If there has ever been a central figure or seminal root
of the blues, that list of names would begin with Willie Dixon. From
a dirt-poor youth in Mississippi to the revered and respected elder
of America's only indigenous music, Dixon began his pursuit at the tender
age of eight.
"I was a kid in Mississippi and we used to be
outside of a place called Zack Lewis'. He had a little tavern; they
called it a barrelhouse in those days, and Little Brother Montgomery
would be in there playing piano with his band. We used to follow Little
Brother all over town. I'd be bare-footed, running up and down the road
behind them, they'd be up on a wagon bed or a T-model Ford truck and
he had a piano up there. Little Brother was short and little at that
time and we always thought he was a kid, but he was several years older
than we was. I know every time we chased him all day long, I'd go back
home and get a whippin' for missing school and following the band all
Those first short, dusty steps would begin a lifelong
journey for Willie Dixon. A path he embraced with open arms and sometimes
clinched fists. Occasional brushes with the law and time spent in reform
school exposed Dixon to the serrated edge of life.
Willie and Roy Gaines share reading material and
Photo by: Yachiyo Mattox
"I used to be a fighter, you know?" I used to train
at Eddie Nichol's Gym in Chicago. Fightin' is a hard job. Of course,
I won the Golden Gloves in 1937 and I fought pro a few times. After
I found out everybody was getting money but me, my management company
was taking advantage of me, so we got into quite a hassle and it caused
both of us to get expelled. Fights get into your system like everything
else, you know? Until you finally get beat enough to give up. I got
a chance to train with the 'Brown Bomber' (Joe Louis) down to Eddie
Nichol's gym I was supposed to go on a tour with them, but I never did
go. My manager didn't want me to get shell-shocked before I got out
there too far, you know?"
Shell-shocked is the pivotal word here. As often happens
with dramatic and unforeseen turns in life, Willie, while somewhat disappointed,
began to contemplate his options. "After sparring with Louis,
I knew from that point on, and for the rest of my life, that I wanted
to be.....a songwriter. The music don't fight back and you don't have
to be ducking and dodging and running and keeping yourself together,
Eddie Nichol's place may have witnessed the end of Willie's
fight game, but it also provided the catalyst for his next career. A
fellow musician and delta native, who was also a ringside regular, would
steer the impressionable Dixon in a totally different direction. That
fight fan was Leonard 'Baby Doo' Caston.
"He was the one teaching me about the musical
things, you know? He used to come around the gymnasium where I was training
and sitting around there playing guitar and singing all day. The first
instrument I started on was a one-string tin can 'Baby Doo' Caston made
for me. I had been singing bass in the south as a youngster on the spiritual
side, I knew a pretty good bass line and I'd learned how to play that
on one string, so it wasn't hard for me to learn."
As part of the short-lived 'Five Breezes' in the late
30's and later "The Big Three Trio", Dixon and Caston were
fast becoming Chicago's original blues brothers. The Windy City was
experiencing post-war prosperity where jobs were abundant and high-paying.
The continuous migration of southern laborers and struggling musicians
along with the sudden influx of returning, cash-laden military personnel
combined to make the south side of Chicago an entertainment flashpoint.
Venues materialized as quickly as the crowds. Clubs,
bars and boulevards (Maxwell Street) beckoned to blues players from
every region of the country, especially the talent-rich Delta. Some
clubs were more prestigious than
"Playin' in some of them old dives in Chicago,
every night when you walked in you was lucky to get out. I could name
a lot of places we used to play, you know? Like 708 when they was first
gettin' out, and they used to have a place down on Indiana they called
'the Hole'. You'd have to look goin' in and look comin' out because
you didn't know whether you were gonna' make it goin' in or comin' out.
I remember the I Spy Lounge, that was on 43rd street. Richard Stems
owned the I Spy. The Green Door was another place; they used to have
a lot of those rough places. People now days don't even know what rough
stuff is. A lot of times guys you were workin' with had their guns and
things and I was more afraid of them than I was the folks out there."
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO McKINLEY
Chicago, in the late 40's, was Mecca for blues players but their styles were diversifying and experimentation produced a new, amplified city sound. On any given night you could find Willie, Big Maceo, Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Boy, Memphis Slim, Memphis Minnie or Son House hanging out at Tampa Red's place.
"Tampa Red had a big old room back there, he lived
right up over a pawn shop on 35th and he had an old, raggedy bed sitting
in the corner and a broke-down piano in another corner. Everybody could
get in there and could sit on the bed or on the floor or on the piano
and they'd all be in there arguing about songs, you know and making
songs, like that. Lester Melrose would be in the front room and he'd
always have the old lady cooking something; chitlins or something. He'd
come back there, 'What you fella's got?' And each one would come up
with what he got."
Creative juices flowed like hot grease down the Melrose
stove. Working with Leonard Caston and Ollie Crawford at local clubs,
The Big Three would occasionally find themselves on stage with another
Delta musician. Willie's personal association with this one time plantation
resident would last a lifetime and their collaboration would become
legendary. McKinley Morganfield and Willie Dixon were about to alter
the world's perception of the blues.
"Muddy Waters was one of the first ones that
starting doing some of my tunes, you know? I was walking around with
200 songs in a bag and nobody would do none of 'em. I'd go around and
sing 'em to him, so he said, 'Man, I like that song.' I had a little
trio called the Big Three Trio at that time; we had recorded for Columbia
and also for Bullet Company. We done that song about the 'Signifyin'
Monkey' and 'Wee, wee baby you sure look good to me' and other songs.
So this 'Hoochie Coochie Man', Muddy Waters liked
it, you know? So I started to go out there and jam with him with our
trio. He told me, 'Man I sure like that song, if you let me, I'll record
it.' Sure enough he got with his manager. I got with Muddy over on 14th
Street one night, I took the song over there and he said, 'Dixon, I'm
gonna' do that song tonight.' He didn't know the song, he'd just heard
me singing it.
So I took him in the washroom on the intermission,
and we practiced the song. He walked out of there and he said, 'Man,
you better let me do it first, so I won't forget it. By the time he
came out of the washroom, he went on the stage and he started doin'
the 'Hoochie, Coochie Man' and he done it til the day he died."
Willie Dixon says hello to one of his biggest fans:
Photo: Renda Lowe
Writing music occasionally created conflicts among Willie's
friends, especially if an artist wanted, or didn't want to record a
certain song. And Dixon was the first to admit that writing the song
wasn't necessarily the most difficult part of the recording process.
"Sometime I just have the idea of the experience
that people go through involving themselves in different things, and
this is what I write about. And then sometime I try to find people that
I feel like can properly express these things, because sometime people
can express a thing better than another one... sometime. "
One case in point, 'Wang Dang Doodle:' "Oh yeah,
Howlin' Wolf recorded it long before Koko Taylor, but the Chess Brothers
wouldn't release it. In fact, I wrote a lot of things for people they
never actually would accept and I'd have to give it to somebody else.
And then ten to one after somebody else get it, then they'd like it.
I used to always have trouble with Muddy and Wolf because one thought
I was giving the other one the better song, you know? So I got to the
place I just used a little backwards psychology on 'em. The one I be
writing for Wolf, I tell Wolf, now here's something I wrote for Muddy
and that's all I need to do. (Wolf would say) 'Man, how come you got
to give that to him, that's better than mine.' And vice a versa, that's
the way it worked."
Another case in point, 'My Babe:' "I had a hard time
in getting Little Walter to do 'My Babe'. Two years I was trying to
get him to do 'My Babe'. He didn't want to record it. He just didn't
like it. But after he recorded it and it started going over, it was
his top running number."
I AM THE BLUES
"Learn to respect the wisdom of the blues,
because the wisdom of the blues and the blues itself is the greatest
music on the face of the earth. The blues has proved to have more wisdom
and understanding than any other music. And once you learn the wisdom
of the story of the facts of life, it gives you a better chance in all
of life. And I think that's a great thing for people to do all over
the world." --Willie Dixon
AMERICAN FOLK BLUES FESTIVAL
As the self-appointed ambassador of the blues, Willie
Dixon and a few special friends began spreading the word outside America's
borders. "Memphis Slim and I started the American Folk Blues Festival.
We was just working as a duet, we went to Israel and other places trying
to promote the blues there. None of these blues organizations was even
thinking about them at the time, but everywhere we went we talked about
the blues and promoted them. Some of the people got into it before we
could complete our thing. I'm glad they did, because today we've got
the blues thing going."
During the early sixties the American Folk Blues Festival
featured some of the most recognizable names in the genre; players like
John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Victoria Spivey, Otis
Spann, Muddy, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, J.B. Lenoir, Lonnie
Johnson, Big Joe Williams and the Wolf.
It wouldn't be until years later that Dixon would discover
the profound effect he and his friends had had on a very select group
of young British musicians.
"Well when they was young, overseas, me and Memphis
Slim was over there and they had their groups going, but that was before
they was popular. The Stones, they was kids over there. I didn't know
one from the other because they didn't have no name then, you know?
When I was over in Europe and other places, I would give songs to everybody
and a lot of kids tell you, 'I'm gonna' do this and I'm gonna' do that',
and how would I know who's who?
But when they come back years later they say, 'You
remember you gave us that song here and gave us a song there,' well
I don't know them but they know me. Some of them gave me their picture
when they was young, you know? And when they came to Chicago, a lot
of them would come to my house or we'd meet in different clubs and things.
How are you gonna' remember a bunch of kids, man? As many countries
as I went into and meet 'em from all over everywhere, I worked with
so many different people in so many different places, I can't remember
them all no way."
A MAN WITH A MISSION
Active for most of his life, Willie thought about retirement
when he moved to Southern California, but it wasn't to be. If anything,
demands on his time increased.
"Ever since I've been out here, it's been one thing
right after another. I try to back off from 'em, but with the Blues
Heaven Foundation I have retired away from working for myself, and by
being able to reap some of the benefits of some of my own royalties
that I should have got years ago. And this is why I started the Blues
Heaven Foundation so I could help other people that wasn't as lucky
Not only does it try to get some of the capital that's
been owed to artists, people who been beat and cheated out of their
thing, but we also help 'em to learn how to protect their songs and
copyrights. We do this with donated capital and the Blues Heaven Foundation
takes not a penny from nobody. I do all of my work for Blues Heaven
for nothing. All the people that has passed on and their families didn't
get anything, all they had to do is prove that they are involved or
in the family and they can reap the benefits of their forbearers.
You know when you feel like you're underprivileged,
and know you're underprivileged and not getting your rights, you always
want to know why? Believe it or not, (prior to the civil rights movements
in the 50's and 60's) people didn't know they had a black law book and
a white law book at that time but today most of them know about it.
It wasn't until after the Martin Luther King era and the government
ratified the 14th and 15th Amendment, that everybody had to hear us
out and give us just dues just like everybody else. My chance for justice
as well as anybody else's is good today."
"That's the reason I'm trying to expose the Blues
Heaven Foundation because you don't have to die to enjoy the great things
of life. You don't have to get to the place where you have to have this
religion or that religion, fighting over ten dollars and then tell me
you're going to a place where the streets are paved in gold. Don't you
know I don't want to go there if you've been raising as much hell over
a dollar here? So I figure if we can enjoy the luxuries of life here
as we should, everything is here you need. They say if you went to heaven
you'd get milk and honey. We got milk and honey here.
It's just a matter of time because you see, everything
have to change, everything changes. People get more experience and understand
each other better, but when you haven't been taught any of the right
things, naturally you can go wrong because you're only thinking about
yourself and not others."
With a chance to reflect on his life and given the option
to change the outcome, Willie just smiled. "Frankly with the experiences
I've had since I've been involved in these blues, I wouldn't take billions
for it, but I wouldn't want to do it all over again for trillions'."
At Willie's home in Southern California, 1987.
Photo: Joe Reiling
Through his Blues Heaven Foundation, lovingly minded by
his widow, Marie and grandson, Alex, Willie continues to touch the lives
of disadvantaged youth and the surviving family members of early blues
greats. Whether it's assisting students through scholarship programs,
donating musical instruments, or recouping lost royalties, Blues Heaven
continues to educate, perpetuate, and carry out Willie's most heart-felt
Willie Dixon lived, worked and breathed the blues. His
music conveyed the depth and drive of that battered old upright bass.
To use boxing vernacular, it was his combinations. He could double you
over with thumping bass lines and drop you to your knees with devastating
lyrics. The name Willie Dixon will always be synonymous with the blues,
but to paraphrase the late Dr. King, it's the 'content of his character'
that we'll all miss the most.