Willie Dixon is one of the most important figures in modern music history. So why does no one know about him?
If you love rock n’ roll, you’ve heard his work. Whenever you get the Led out, rock to the Stones, or clap to Clapton, you owe him a debt of gratitude. And yet while the names of his musical progeny are universally recognized even in shorthand, the name “Willie Dixon” remains relatively obscure, stumping even lifelong fans of his music. So who is Willie Dixon?
To put it simply, Willie Dixon is the Bob Dylan of blues. Or, more accurately, Bob Dylan is the Willie Dixon of folk music.
It’s no secret that rock n’ roll has its roots in the blues, and more particularly in the electric blues that emerged from Chicago in the early 50’s, which would make its way across the pond and inspire a generation of British rockers. While working for Chess Records as an in-house songwriter and backing musician, Dixon wrote songs for blues legends Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and many more. One of the most prolific songwriters of all time, Dixon wrote more than 500 songs in his lifetime, and many of his songs form the canon of Chicago blues. Dixon was a tireless bass player as well, and his bass can be heard on countless recordings from that era. Dixon also worked with rock pioneers such as Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy, who were themselves a prime influence on the British Invasion.
Although Dixon did eventually record many of his own songs, his legacy is largely connected with the artists that took his songs to the top, with or without his permission. When the Rolling Stones recorded Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” in 1964, it went to #1 in the UK, a first for a blues record and the second #1 hit of many for the Stones. But no artists owe more to Willie Dixon, both literally and figuratively, than Led Zeppelin. Zep covered two Dixon classics for their debut album, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and “borrowed” from two more Dixon tunes for their second album, resulting in “Bring It On Home” and their first hit single, “Whole Lotta Love.” Dixon would later sue the band for plagiarism.
So why is Willie Dixon not mentioned among the greats of modern music? Part of the reason might be that the role of a songwriter is often underappreciated. Dixon isn’t the only songwriter who suffers from undeserved lack of fame amongst the general public (Leiber and Stoller instantly come to mind). Like producers, songwriters are often the secret to an act’s success, and yet a secret they remain. Another factor is the relative obscurity of the blues itself. Despite begetting rock n’ roll, jazz, and American music as we know it, the blues has been largely forgotten. For most people, music history begins with Elvis, or perhaps Sinatra. It’s difficult to ignore the racial aspect of this selective memory, as Chuck Berry or Little Richard or any jazz musician before Benny Goodman could attest. But whether they take the form of an old blues jam, a 70’s rock anthem, or a hip-hop sample, the many fruits of Willie Dixon will live on–whether or not his name lives with them.
Here are some famous Dixon-penned tunes:
When you think of the blues, this song is probably what comes to mind. First recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954, “Hoochie Coochie Man” could be considered Dixon’s magnum opus.
Recorded by the Stones, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Foghat, and just about everybody else, this song might be Dixon’s most well-traveled tune.
Recorded originally by Howlin’ Wolf, this song is usually associated with the Doors, whose chill-inducing cover fits their sound so well that it’s amazing Jim Morrison didn’t write it.
Later memorably recorded by Zeppelin, this song was originally written for–and about–Otis Rush, and his powerful vocal performance proves it.
Another song originally written for Howlin’ Wolf, the definitive version of this tune has to be Koko Taylor’s hauntingly fierce interpretation, featuring Dixon himself singing along in the chorus.
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