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Willie Dixon: Preserving the Legacy

Willie Dixon

In today’s fast paced world it’s not uncommon for us to overlook the legacies of those who paved the way for so many bassists who came later. Thankfully, a new website dedicated to the life and legacy of Willie Dixon will help ensure the legendary bluesman’s landmark contributions to bass playing, the blues, and helping his fellow musicians will get the recognition they richly deserve. Willie’s grandson, Alex Dixon, is the driving force behind the site and perpetuating the Willie Dixon legacy, and he recently took time to share about his grandfather.

Willie was a key creative force at Chess Records, the Chicago blues label that is often seen as the roots of Rock & Roll. In addition to his impressive bass work (check out this video), Willie was a gifted songwriter, penning many hit tunes including “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Spoonful,” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” All of these songs, originally recorded by blues masters including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, went on to influence and provide material for future musicians and groups including The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream all of whom covered Dixon compositions on their albums.

Willie aggressively advocated on behalf of his fellow musicians later in life. In 1984 he founded the Blues Heaven Foundation, a non-profit organization set up to promote the blues and blues musicians by providing scholarships, royalty recovery advice and emergency assistance.

Alex shares, “My grandfather was a very focused and driven man, who took his music and his beliefs very seriously. I remember him always stressing the importance of family and education while I grew up with him in the house. He always wanted us to think about the way the world was. My grandfather was also a man that tried to help out his counterparts with the music business as he found out more information. He tried to let them know about the publishing side of music and how to collect their money through BMI and ASCAP when their music was played on the radio or on TV. He was also a big advocate in telling his friends to write their own songs.”

Alex and Willie DixonAlex, who played piano in his grandfather’s band for about four years, wants Willie’s incredible life story to continue on and inspire a new generation of bassists, musicians, and music lovers.

“After my grandfather passed away in 1992, much of the focus was turned toward the foundation, Blues Heaven Foundation, and my grandmother obtaining the former Chess Studios building in Chicago in 1994… As I am 35 years old now and have played music all my life, I found out that many people [don’t know] much about my grandfather, including the songs he wrote and the artists [who] recorded them. I wanted to make sure that we can get the information out there about him. After the movie Cadillac Records came out, more people started to know about him, which is why we decided to create his own website.”

Financially strained early in his career, Willie started playing bass on a makeshift instrument made out of an oil can and a single string. As his hard work met with success he was eventually able to purchase an upright, which he played his whole life. Two of his basses are still kept by the family, one in California and the other at the restored Blues Heaven/Chess Records office and studio in Chicago. As anyone who plays an upright knows, traveling with the instrument isn’t easy, but it was even harder back in the day.

“There are so many stories that I could mention about my grandfather and his bass,” says Alex. Willie would tell his grandson to appreciate the first class treatment they received on the road, since it was the result of hard work. “One story in particular is about him and his friend Memphis Slim when they drove to New York from Chicago without any gigs. When they got to New York, their car broke down and they had very little money, just enough for a room, but not enough to fix the car. They called all of the clubs and pretended to be their own managers. After they finally got a couple of gigs, they noticed that they were having a hard time getting a cab to take them to the clubs because they wouldn’t stop for two guys, one being a huge guy with a huge bass. So, Memphis Slim would stand outside and flag down a cab. Then my grandfather would come bolting out with the bass to get in the cab. The cab driver would be mad, but that’s what they had to do to get to the clubs.”

A bassist at heart, many of his famous compositions begin with a solid groove.

“My grandfather was really strong with his bass lines, because he was a bass player, of course, ” Alex shares. “My experience in writing music with him was that he would always start with the bass line. From there, he would tell a story. He didn’t do a lot of complicated changes or lyrics, but he would use powerful words and metaphors to get his story across. Most people listen to certain songs, i.e. ‘Spoonful’, and have no idea what it’s about. I’ve heard people say it’s about drugs, but it really is just saying that a little bit of something can make a big difference in life in general. A spoonful of water right before help comes can make the difference between life and death.”

With Dixon’s being an extensive catalog of now classic songs, we asked Alex what Willie thought of rock musicians recording their own takes of Willie’s songs.

“He was extremely happy about the rock covers of his songs as he knew it would bring them to a wider audience that he was getting,” Alex said. “He was a business man. He was happy that groups such as The Rolling Stones, Cream, and even Led Zeppelin recorded his songs. Some of the versions he liked, in particular the songs covered by The Rolling Stones. He liked their cover of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’.”

The new Willie Dixon website is an oasis of knowledge about the bassist himself, but the history of Chicago blues and beyond.

“I hope that the information that we provide on the website will really bring my grandfather’s legacy to those who didn’t know who he was,” Alex states. “I also hope that it will show the importance of his music in the evolution of Chicago Blues and early Rock ‘n Roll.” For more on the life and music of Willie Dixon, visit the website, Facebook fan page, and the Blues Heaven Foundation.