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.
Following individual band introductions by leader Dixon over a quintessential Chicago beat, Branch kicks off an energized instrumental romp with his urgent harp blowing, underscored by James' insistent shuffle beat. Benton adds some economic and well-chosen licks on his guitar solo, but it's Branch who carries the tune with his forceful blowing. Pianist Leake then steps forward to testify on his slow blues "Fine Little Girl"(which sounds suspiciously similar to Buddy Guy's "Suits Me to a Tee") while also delivering some sparkling piano work. Leake continues to tickle the ivories in virtuosic fashion on an upbeat instrumental showcase, then Benton takes over the vocals and delivers stinging licks on an earthy Chicago shuffle variation on Big Joe Turner's "Wee Baby Blues." Benton next brings a soulful feeling to his vocals on T-Bone Walker's "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" while also summoning up some B.B. and Albert King-inspired six-string work on this earthy slow blues. Branch's blues harp work here is highlight.
They tear through the upbeat Chicago shuffle "I'm Crazy for My Baby," with Dixon on roughhewn vocals. At the conclusion of this infectious Dixon original, he says to the GAMH audience, "Yeah, I'm crazy for my baby. You'd be crazy for your baby if you your baby was putting down what my baby is putting down." Dixon and the All-Stars conclude their set with faithful renditions of "Rock Me Baby," a tune covered by everyone from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker to Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and The Doors, and "Wang Dang Doodle," a Dixon tune originally written in 1961 for Howlin' Wolf and which became a big party-time hit for Koko Taylor in 1964 and subsequently served as her theme song for the next four decades. (Note the pitch at the end of the set for 8-track tapes of Dixon's latest album, Catalyst, available from drummer James for $6.)
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)