Widely acknowledged as "the poet laureate of the blues," bassist-composer and Chess Records A&R man Willie Dixon wrote timeless tunes for such profound Chicago blues icons as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. For this Great American Music Hall concert, Dixon led a cast All-Stars from the Windy City, including pianist Lafayette Leake, young harmonica ace Billy Branch (21 at the time), guitarist Buster Benton, drummer Clifton James and his son Freddie Dixon on electric bass. Dixon, who was 58 at the time of this performance, set the tone for the evening with his husky vocals and pulled out his signature upright bass for only one song, an old number he used to play in duets with pianist Memphis Slim at this beginning of his career.
Dixon and the All-Stars open their GAMH set (the second of the evening) with pianist Lafayette Leake's minor key lament, "Trouble, Trouble," which features the ubiquitous Chess Records session man on vocals while also showcasing his potent chops on piano. Sticking with the slow tempo and the trouble theme, Leake then leads the crew into the mournful eight-bar blues dating back to the early 1920s, "Trouble in Mind," which carries a positive message of hope and redemption in the lyrics ("the sun will shine in my back door some day") despite its somber feel. This classic blues tune composed by Richard M. Jones has been recorded by everyone from Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin. Dixon takes over vocal duties on his upbeat Chicago shuffle "29 Ways," which features slashing solos from harmonica ace Branch and guitar slinger Benton.
Dixon's "Back Door Man," a tune he wrote in 1961 for blues star Howlin' Wolf, is delivered with requisite menace by the leader himself. This arrangement, however, is something different from Wolf's slow blues version, blending in James Brown-inspired funk beats into the mix. Guitarist Benton turns in a stinging guitar solo on this promiscuous number (the song title is a reference to an old southern phrase referring to a man having an affair with a married woman, conveniently slipping out the back door before the husband comes home). Dixon's "Built for Comfort," which he originally recorded on his 1959 debut as a leader, Willie's Blues, features Benton unleashing once again with some toe-curling six-string licks. They kick out the jams on a revved up version of Memphis Slim's jump blues "Rock and Rolling the House," which features Dixon's formidable upright slap bass technique. And they close their GAMH set on a mellow note with "Ain't Nobody's Business," tune that dates back to the very beginning of the early blues movement from the mid '20s and was recorded innumerable times since then by such artists as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Witherspoon on up to contemporary artists like Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton and Susan Tedeschi.
A powerhouse on the bandstand and a sharp businessman off, Dixon was born on July 1, 1915, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, though he is forever identified with Chicago blues. After singing in gospel groups around Mississippi, he hopped a freight train to the Windy City in 1936 and trained to become a boxer, winning the Illinois Golden Gloves championship in the novice heavyweight category. After quitting the boxing racket, he sang with various gospel groups before joining the vocal harmony group The Five Breezes in 1939. He made his first recordings with the group. In 1946, formed the Big Three Trio with his Five Breezes band mate Leonard Caston on piano and Ollie Crawford on guitar. Patterned after the popular Mills Brothers vocal harmony group, they had many successful tours and recordings from 1946 to 1951 before disbanding. Dixon then joined the staff at Chess Records, where he became the label's top writer, churning out hits for Muddy Waters ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "I'm Ready," "I Just Wanna Make Love to You"), Howlin' Wolf ("Little Red Rooster," "I Ain't Superstitious," "Evil," "Spoonful"), Little Walter ("My Babe"), Otis Rush ("I Can't Quit You Baby") and Koko Taylor ("Wang Dang Doodle"). In all, Dixon had more than 500 compositions to his credit.
Dixon toured Europe with American Folk Blues Festival between 1962 and 1964, bringing American blues to young Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Jeff Beck and countless other British blues hounds. (Cream later recorded its own version of Dixon's menacing "Spoonful"). He left Chess Records in 1970 and toured with the Chicago Blues All-Stars in the mid '70s. He continued to perform into the '80s and helped established the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarship awards and musical instruments to poorly funded schools. Dixon's final album, 1988's Hidden Charms, won a Grammy Award for best traditional blues recording. He died of heart failure on 1992 at age 76. Dixon's rich life story was detailed in his 1989 autobiography, "I Am The Blues." (Bill Milkowski)