The Real McCoy: An Interview with Alex Dixon
As an architect of the Chicago blues sound, Willie Dixon’s music changed the direction of popular music. His hits like “Spoonful,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Little Red Rooster” would inspire not only blues fans, but an entire generation of rock musicians thanks to covers by Cream, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones. Though his music speaks for itself, his timeless work has been preserved thanks in large part to the efforts of his grandson, Alex Dixon. Now, Alex is continuing the legacy with his band Vintage Dixon and the new album, The Real McCoy, available on March 24th.
Though Dixon has released several of his own albums, the new record leans on the tradition of his grandfather’s style. One listen and you’ll hear the same spirit found on the elder Dixon’s recordings, even though there are only four of Willie’s songs on the track list. Alex was raised by Willie, who taught him how to write songs, how to play bass, and how to perform. Similar to Willie Dixon’s statement album I Am The Blues, The Real McCoy is Alex’s own affirmation of his undeniable blues heritage.
“We were trying to go for authenticity, and I wanted to showcase some of the things that I learned from my grandfather and make the album I’ve always wanted to do,” Dixon says. “I’ve been playing blues for the last 30 years, mostly as a songwriter.”
We caught up with Alex to get the scoop on his new album, performing with his grandfather, and what makes the Chicago blues unique.
I know you’ve played piano on your other albums. Is this a return to the bass for you or have you been playing the whole time?
My first instrument was actually the piano, but I’ve always dabbled around with the bass. I took it seriously about 10 or 15 years ago. I had a bass player in my band that decided to go with another band, so we had some lessons and I was off and running. Once you play piano, you can get around other instruments.
Did you ever get bass playing tips from your grandfather?
Oh yeah, he had his bass around all the time. He let me play it and showed me how to do certain slap moves like the triplet style that he would use on the Chuck Berry songs. I was playing piano and he would have me tune his bass with the piano by ear. He had gut strings that were awesome on his bass, but I’m using steel Thomastiks. I think I’m going to get some guts on my bass for my next project.
I did hear some of Willie’s slap style in “Chi-Town Boogie” when it breaks down a little bit.
Yeah, we did a little slap and a little Chuck Berry stuff in there. The album is called Vintage Dixon because we’re doing the styles that I learned from [my grandfather] during his Big Three trio time, plus some Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker stuff.
I read you moved to L.A. when you were young. Did you move there with your grandparents?
Yeah, I was raised by my grandparents. My mom is the oldest daughter of Marie and Willie. Unfortunately, she got sick when I was younger so I had to move with my grandparents to California. That’s where he revived his career. He won a Grammy and started doing well.
We moved to Glendale, California and I went to school out there. We did all the “Blues in School” programs and we would go around and play with different acts. At the time, I didn’t think it was anything big, but as I look back we were playing with Bo Diddley and Stevie Ray Vaughan. We’d go on stage and would be jamming with them, but I’d never think about it. My wife got to meet some of those guys and she’d laugh and say, “I can’t believe I met Bo Diddley in his trailer and we were just talking to him!” I’d say, “Yeah, we were playing gigs at a club down the street when I was a kid.” [laughs]
When you’re young and you’re playing music, you’re trying to make sure you don’t mess up and embarrass your grandfather. You’re not thinking about who this guy is that’s playing with you. You just want to play your three or four songs correctly. You’re too busy being nervous. There’s a picture I have where I’m 12 years old and we’re on MTV. I didn’t think too much about it it, but my friends would say, “Hey, I saw you on MTV last night!” I wasn’t bragging about it. I just thought of it as something I was doing with my grandfather.
Did you show a ton of interest in that or did he foster it and bring you into it?
Initially, it was a situation where he had my uncle Butch Dixon, who played in the Chicago Blues All-Stars, in his band forever. Then he got older and he started transferring it to me. I wasn’t really trying to play all the time, but I saw how happy [it made him]. I got to go on tour and play festivals with him, so I thought, “Oh, this is pretty cool.” It was easier than practice because our practice was so intense that by the time I got on the stage it was easy. I only had to play the song one time [laughs]. We would have practice situations where we might work on one song for an hour and a half.
You’d rehearse one song that much?
Yeah. He was a perfectionist who was trying to make sure he got the sound right. You know how you can just write a song and think about it in different ways. You can change everything. We would be up all night writing songs together. When he was trying to write his last album, Hidden Charms, he would come to me and say, “They want me to do an album.” We’d go through all the songs and figure out what we were going to do for this last project. We were happy because we were hoping he would finally get a Grammy. He always had tons of nominations but had never won one. He ended up getting a Grammy for that album and I was lucky enough to write a song with him that’s on that album. It was cool.
It sounds like you’ve got that determination and attention to detail from him. What other kinds of lessons did you get from him?
When we were doing this project in the studio, I wanted to create opportunities for certain guys. I met the singer on this album, Lewis Powell, and ironically my grandmother would always tell me, “There’s this guy in Chicago that is awesome and can sing really well. You should work with him.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” because you hear that all the time from different musicians. My grandmother passed away about four years ago. Lewis is actually a drummer by trade, and I needed a drummer to come down and play at the funeral. He came down and played for three hours and wouldn’t take any money from me. He said, “I just want to help you guys out.” That’s rare, so I told him we would do some work together.
I heard him singing a song, and I said, “You kind of remind me of Howlin’ Wolf with that growl going on.” He said, “I love Howlin’ Wolf.” I got excited because no one ever talks about him. After we talked, I said I’m gonna start writing some songs, but I’m going to write one that has that kind of “Hoochie Coochie Man” vibe with stop time. We went into the studio and did this song called “Nothing New Under The Sun.” It was made for him. Then we started writing more songs and I started covering songs of my grandfather’s. That’s kind of how I found him.
He sounds great. To be honest, I thought maybe it was you at first. I feel like I hear tinges of the “Dixon” sound.
Well, I was teaching him how to sing all the songs, but he has a certain voice. I sing at the Chicago Blues Fest and all that stuff, but I wanted him to sing. I wanted to have a band this time where we can go on tour. When we’re on stage I’ll sing, and he’ll sing the majority of the stuff. I wanted to give him the opportunity to sing and it worked out pretty good.
How did you decide on which songs to pick from your grandfather’s repertoire? He has so many great songs.
This time we used songs that weren’t like “Spoonful” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” and all the really famous songs. I dug deeper in the catalog and found this song called “Spider in My Stew” that was recorded by Buster Benton, and awesome guitarist from Chicago when we were younger. He always did a great rendition of it, so I thought that would be a good song for Lewis because of the range. I also chose “When I Make Love” because if you Google it, you’ll see my grandfather and Koko Taylor singing it at the Grammys. That was an exciting time for us in the family because we were just moving out to California and he was singing on the Grammys. It was like, “Wow, things are going good for us.” So I picked that. “Groaning the Blues” was picked because Otis Rush just passed away in the last couple of years. I was talking to his wife and I told her that we were going to do a song that he did. I didn’t really realize that Clapton did it on his From the Cradle album, but the Otis Rush version is amazing. The last cover is “Howlin’ for My Darling” which goes back to the collaboration between Howlin’ Wolf and my grandfather.
I wanted to make it unique. It would be a cliche if I came out with “My Babe” and “Spoonful” and “Little Red Rooster” and all the songs that the rock bands covered. I went that direction on purpose.
Would you say all these songs are in the Chicago Blues style?
Yeah. I’m trying to do Blues in general, but since I’m from Chicago and my grandfather is known as one of the architects of Chicago Blues, they’ll call it that. That’s how I’ll write a song anyway because he taught me how to write music. It just comes out that way.
What makes the “Chicago Blues” sound to you?
I know that when I’m talking to other artists that ask me to write for them, I always tell them, “I’m gonna make you tougher sounding.” When I think of Chicago Blues, I think of blazing guitars and tougher-sounding singers, like on “Hoochie Coochie Man” from Muddy Waters all those years ago. It’s more in-your-face. It’s a lot different than Delta. Delta is more laid back with the acoustic guitars. Chicago Blues is about the electric guitar solos, harmonica, break downs with the bass and drums coming together… Just in your face.
Is there a specific “Chicago Blues” bass style?
The Chicago Blues bass style would be a little walking bass and a little slap bass. When I think of it for me, I still think of the Chuck Berry stuff – slap bass style. Then I think of “Spoonful.” You hear it filling in, but it’s a driving bass that’s going to be noticeable. I tried to make all the bass be up enough so I wasn’t buried as you hear on some other albums. I tried to make the bass drive the band. You’ll never have an album from me where the bass isn’t driving it. It’s kind of like the leader of the band. I mean, I’m the leader of the band, so I was making it like, “This is how we do it.” I was teaching them how to sing the songs on the bass. When I was showing Lew how to sing the songs, I would have my bass in my hands and I’d tell him how we were going to do it. That’s pretty much what we were doing.
What tips you have for players trying to improve on their blues bass lines?
I would say just try to lock in with your drummer. I try to make sure that feel is important. Just play for the song – don’t play to be noticed or try to show off. That’s what I go for. I’ve seen that with other bass players I’ve met, like Willie Weeks. Anytime he’s playing it’s for feel. For blues bass, sometimes less is more.
At the same time, it depends on the situation. I just listen to old records, man. I figure out what the sound is I like, and usually, it’s my grandfather’s stuff. That’s how I learned upright bass for the most part. I just grabbed Chuck Berry’s box set and said, “Ok, here we go. I’m gonna learn all these songs.” That’s pretty much what I did, and I even told Chuck Berry that.
You said Willie’s bass is strung up with guts. You’re not playing it, are you?
No, I’m not. His bass is actually at our foundation in Chicago which is in the old Chess Records building. We have one of his Kay Basses. My bass is an old German carved bass. I don’t have a plywood bass, even though I know it might get me a little more boom in my sound. My carved bass has a little bit smoother sound.
What do you use for amplification?
I use the David Gage Realist. I played out of a tube amp to get that certain sound. I was in a cocoon when I was playing upright in the studio. They had the mics around there, towards the center of the bass to get some finger sound. I have Thomastik flatwound strings on it. That’s pretty much my setup. It’s not that crazy.
In the behind the scenes videos, it looks like you recorded all in one room.
Yeah, we did it the old school way. One room with some baffles here and there. A lot of blues, in my opinion, is being able to see each other so you can know what’s about to happen. The stuff you’re hearing is us deciding in real-time to go to a breakdown, a solo, or whatever. A lot of it was me looking at Steve [Bell] the harmonica player and saying, “Hey! It’s time for your solo.” It was pretty laid back, so it was great. It was very fun doing this project.
Again, I was going for authenticity. My last recording was more of a blues-rock kind of a thing. I heard some rumblings about “I wonder if he even likes blues,” so I thought, “Oh, no – I can do a blues album!” I can do any blues thing you want. This album is the stuff I’ve done my whole life, so I figured they didn’t want to hear it anymore. This is traditional blues. This is what I do.