Forgotten Giants: Willie Dixon - The Poet Laureate of Chess Records

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Forgotten Giants: Willie Dixon - The Poet Laureate of Chess Records

In 1953, Willie Dixon was just an office assistant at Chess Records, an up-and-coming indie blues label on the South Side of Chicago. His duties ranged from playing upright bass on sessions to packing up the resulting records for shipment and sweeping the floor. He was always pestering people about the songs he wrote in his spare time, but no one paid him much mind.

Some folks knew he’d been one-third of the Big Three Trio, which had recorded for Columbia in the late ’40s, but their brand of sophisticated jump blues was outdated now, eclipsed by the rawer blues of new arrivals in Chicago from Mississippi such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Dixon was recently arrived from Mississippi too—he grew up in Vicksburg—but he had a different approach to music than Muddy or Wolf. Those two men were geniuses, but they were geniuses of instinct. They were forces of nature who improvised verbal phrases and musical riffs until those pieces fell together into a useful channel for their volcanic feelings. Dixon, by contrast, was a thinker and planner, always reading newspapers and writing notes, constructing songs and arrangements with a premeditated plan in mind. He was the Apollonian rationalist compared the Dionysian spontaneity of Muddy and Wolf.

It was only when these two approaches joined as one that Chess entered its golden era and produced many of the finest blues recordings ever made. And that fusion happened one fateful winter night at the end of 1953 in a South Side bar called Club Zanzibar at 14th Street and Ashland. At the first intermission, Dixon grabbed Muddy Waters as he came off stage and told him he had a song that could be a hit for the singer. “Man, this song is a natural for you,” Dixon said, according to his lively autobiography I Am the Blues.

Muddy, looking at the long column of words on the paper that Dixon shoved his way, was dubious. “Well,” he said, stalling for time, “it’ll take me a little while to learn it.” Dixon, who could be relentless when he was on a hustle, wouldn’t be put off. “No,” he exclaimed, “this is right down your alley. I’ve got an idea for a little riff that anybody can play—go get your guitar.” He dragged Muddy over to the bathroom door, and as customers were going to and from the toilet, Dixon said, “Now, here’s your riff: da-da-da-da-da.”

Muddy still resisted. “Oh, Dixon, ain’t nothing to that,” he complained. The composer countered that that was the whole point: the very simplicity of the riff and the words would make it easy for people to remember them, and the originality of the guitar figure and the story would make them want to. “Now remember this,” Dixon told his reluctant pupil, “’The gypsy woman told my mother, da-da-da-da-da, before I was born, da-da-da-da-da, you got a boy child coming, da-da-da-da-da, he’s gonna be a son of a gun.’”

They worked on “Hoochie Coochie Man” in the bathroom for 15 minutes or so, and finally Muddy said, “I’m going to do this song first, so I don’t forget it.” “He went right up onstage that first night,” Dixon writes in his autobiography, “and taught the band the little riff I showed him. He did it first show and sure enough the people went wild over it. He was doing that song until the day he died.”

Watch an interview with Willie Dixon circa 1984:

Right after the New Year of 1954, Chess recorded the song with one of the greatest bands in American history: Muddy on vocals and guitar, Little Walter on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Fred Below on drums and Dixon himself on stand-up bass.

On the verses, the whole band, led by Walter’s mouth harp, would hammer the riff (an eighth note, three triplets and an eighth note—five, seven, five, seven and eight on the scale) and then fall completely silent as Muddy sang each line. It was riff, “I got a black cat bone,” riff, “I got a mojo too,” riff, “I got John the Conquer root,” riff, “I’m gonna mess with you.” This alternation between band-without-singer and singer-without-band built the tension till the two finally come together at the end of each verse with Muddy roaring, “I’m a hoochie-coochie man,” as he led the sextet into the chorus, announcing, “Everybody knows I’m here.”

The lyrics may be compact explosions of vernacular, but they’re filled with vivid images of dead-animal bones and bindweed root. Down South these items were combined with feathers, coins and graveyard dirt in a small flannel bag, worn as an amulet from a string around the waist or neck and known as a mojo (or mojo hand, nation sack, gris-gris bag, etc.).

These echoes of the old African religions still existed in Southern black communities, and Dixon expertly brings them out of the shadows and uses them to explain the potency of his narrator, the hoochie-coochie man. Even that phrase is borrowed; the “hoochie-coochie” or “kouta-kouta” dance was an alluringly bawdy belly dance, allegedly from Africa.

“All through history,” Dixon writes in his autobiography, “there have been people who were supposed to be able to tell the future before it came to pass. People always felt it would be great to be one of those people: ‘This guy is a hoodoo man; this lady is a witch. This other guy’s a hoochie coochie man; she’s some kind of voodoo person.’ In the South, the gypsies would come around and tell fortunes. When I was a little boy, you’d see a covered wagon coming along and these women in their great big dresses.”

But Dixon wasn’t just reflecting a marginalized culture back on itself; he was employing that culture’s artifacts to paint a psychological portrait of a proud, swaggering man. Muddy Waters was such a man, and Dixon deliberately set out, step by step, to create a musical myth for him, drawn from the folklore of black Mississippi. Unlike Muddy, though, Dixon wasn’t an instinctual artist, sensing when the right idea popped into one’s head; he was a self-conscious artist who had a purpose and a plan for carrying it out. Just listen to him talk about writing “Hoochie Coochie Man”:

“The average person wants to brag about themselves,” he wrote, “because it makes that individual feel big. ‘The gypsy woman told my mother before I was born,’ that shows I was smart from the beginning. ‘Got a boy child coming, gonna be a son of a gun,’ now I’m here. These songs make people want to feel like that because they feel like that at heart anyway. They just haven’t said it, so you say it for them.”

That’s what great writing is about: taking the unarticulated feelings of the audience and giving it just the right words. The hoochie-coochie man is not just a man that Dixon is describing but a character that he consciously created. In fact, after months of jamming with Muddy in Chicago’s South Side blues clubs, Dixon had learned the guitarist’s psychology and was able to build a song around it.”

“Most of the time,” Dixon told Jas Obrecht in 1980, “if I was writing for an individual, why, I would kind of quiz the individual and get his feeling and his expressions and the way that he talked and the way that he sang and the things that he liked about it, you know. Because the first thing you’d have to do is try to get something that he liked that you feel that the public would like at the same time. And this is one of the ways that I always tried to do.”

But even though he invented the story of the Hoochie Coochie Man, Dixon could never have inhabited that role as convincingly as Muddy did. It was a musical marriage that needed both halves to work. Dixon needed Muddy’s voice, and Muddy needed Dixon’s songs. Chess needed both the undiluted power of the singer’s Delta roots, and the savvy sophistication of the songwriter’s urbanity.

Dixon had proven in the Big Three Trio and various gospel groups that he was a fine harmony singer, but he lacked the Muddy-like authority to be a lead vocalist. He recorded a version of “Wang Dang Doodle,” for example, for Chess in 1954, but the label didn’t release it till 1995, three years after the composer had died. It’s a fun version, with a warm vocal and an arrangement that swings more than it stomps, but it lacks the compulsive intensity of the released version by Koko Taylor.

Waters, in turn, wrote some memorable songs on his own, most notably “Long Distance Call” and “Champagne and Reefer,” but they never had the thought-through coherence and compactness of the songs that Dixon wrote for him: “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love,” “The Same Thing” and “I’m Ready.”

The latter songs were unmistakably blues, but they had a pop craftsmanship that distilled each song to an irresistible mnemonic, musical as well as verbal. It’s no wonder that when the young musicians who would go on to form the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin first heard Muddy’s songs, they picked Dixon’s compositions as the ones to learn and play.

Muddy became more amenable to Dixon’s songwriting after “Hoochie Coochie Man” became a huge hit. But Wolf never did. Even after Wolf had some of his greatest success with such Dixon songs as “Spoonful,” “Evil,” “Back Door Man” and “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” he continued to resist Dixon’s offerings. Even when he offered Wolf “Wang Dang Doodle,” perhaps the greatest song Dixon ever wrote, the singer kept putting the songwriter off, saying, “Man, that’s too old-timey, sounds like some old levee camp number.”

“Wolf didn’t ever want to do none of the songs I wrote for him, but he finally would after a discussion with Leonard,” Dixon writes in his autobiography, referring to Leonard Chess, the head of Chess Records. “A lot of times he would never learn the song. He couldn’t read so he’d have to learn the words by heart, but he really wouldn’t be thinking about the song, because I’d still have to whisper them into his ear after six months of training. Sometimes we’d have a good cut all the way down and right at the end he’d turn around and say, ‘Oh, man I didn’t hear what you said.’”

The brilliance of “Wang Dang Doodle” is that it’s both an “old levee camp number” and a modern, urban blues tune. It evokes a Saturday-night blowout in a rickety shack on a Mississippi levee in 1929, even as it employs the verbal dexterity and density of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. It’s so crammed full of tongue-twisting lines that even the most literate person would have trouble learning them.

“Tell Kuda-Crawlin’ Red, tell Abyssinian Ned,” the lyrics say. “Tell old Pistol Pete to tell everybody he meet, tonight we need no rest; we really gonna throw a mess…. When the fish scent fill the air, there’ll be snuff juice everywhere. We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.” You don’t even need to know the music to hear the rhythm and the melody in those phrases. It’s a song so evocative, you can smell it.

Wolf finally consented to do a version in 1960, but it wasn’t until Koko Taylor’s enthusiastic version in 1965 that the song truly came to life. She was a young, ambitious singer, but none of her records had clicked. She asked Dixon for his help, saying, “I can sing, but every time I go to somebody and sing, they tell me they don’t like this growl, that heavy part of my voice.”

That growl is what made her so good, he told her. “You got a different thing,” he said, “and if you use it properly, it can be essential, it can be a really good thing for you.” In other words, she might be the female Howlin’ Wolf. He even suggested that she record “Wang Dang Doodle.” “That ain’t no song for a woman to sing,” she objected.

“The hell it ain’t,” Dixon responded. “You’re trying to get over, and this is something different…. You don’t see nothing in it, because you’re not looking farther than the end of your nose. But I’m looking for tomorrow, next year, in the long run.”

There are musicians who live in the moment, and there are musicians who live outside the moment and can see the whole expanse of time and landscape. Great art can come from both types, but Dixon was definitely the latter. That’s why he excelled more as a songwriter, arranger and producer than as a performer. Muddy, Wolf and Koko might throw themselves into the here and now, but Dixon could step back from the picture and see how all the elements might fit together when it was only half-finished or even barely begun.

“I get a thing in my mind,” he said, explaining his songwriting process to Jas Obrecht in 1980. “I get the words that I would like to say and the expression that I would like to have them said in to get the best results. And I would like for these things to be a part of life, because I’ve always felt like blues was the facts of life being expressed to other people that didn’t understand the other fellow’s condition. So by feeling like this, it gave me the chance to express the feelings and the things that I felt like the people would like to say or want to say or would like for other people to know.”

He wasn’t improvising spontaneously; his work was premeditated and revised. He was an intellectual in a non-credentialed world, a writer in an oral culture, a director in the midst of chaos. He might look at Howlin’ Wolf, for example, and see how the singer’s natural suspiciousness of everyone around him might be the perfect example of every listener’s wariness.

Dixon might set up the story in four short lines: “If you’re a long way from home, can’t sleep at night, grab your telephone; something just ain’t right.” As the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.” Dixon justifies Wolf’s worries with a chorus that says, “That’s evil—evil is going on.”

And just as Muddy’s swagger was perfect for “The Hoochie Coochie Man,” Wolf’s ingrained mistrust was perfect for “Evil.” Once again, there was an instrumental vamp to lure the listener in—in this case, two staccato piano chords answered by a guitar run. And when he got to the chorus, Wolf’s bottomless baritone stretched out the title word as “E-e-e-vu-uhl,” as if his worst suspicions had been confirmed by his phone call home. The way the pause-punctuated vamp contrasted with the verse and the way the verse contrasted with the chorus set up Wolf’s snake-like pronunciation of the title—and that sold the song.

“One would make the other stick out,” Dixon told Obrecht, “just like a picture on the wall. If you have a good background, it’s a good thing to put the picture on it of a certain color or a certain kind. And if you’ve got a good picture, you wanna have a good background. You got a good background, you want a good picture. But you want it to contrast which each other where one will stick out from the other and will attract the attention to the public.”

Dixon was very good at what he did, and he knew it. And if he had a song that he knew was right for you, he’d keep after you till you gave in. Little Walter, for example, was always bragging about his women and how they loved him no matter what. So Dixon wrote “My Babe,” a song where the singer boasts like a rooster, “She don’t do nothing but kiss and hug me, my babe.” Perhaps it was too close to home, but Walter didn’t want to record it.

“He fought it for two long years,” Dixon writes in his autobiography, “and I wasn’t going to give the song to nobody but him. He said many times he didn’t like it, but by 1955 the Chess people had gained confidence enough in me that they felt if I wanted him to do it, it must be his type of thing. The minute he did it, boom, she went right to the top of the charts.”

“If he had a song he had confidence in for you,” Taylor later reflected in Dixon’s autobiography, “and felt really strongly about it, you couldn’t change his mind…. He was a very strong, firm person, a determined person with whatever he felt was right to do. It turned out later that the things he was saying were very true.”

Listen to a 1973 performance from Dixon and The Chicago Blues All Stars:

He was born William James Dixon in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 1, 1915, one of 14 children. His parents couldn’t have been more different. His mother Daisy was very religious and a poetry reciter, but his stepfather A.D. Bell (who many people claimed was his actual father) was a gun-toting thief who was openly skeptical of both the black church and the white power structure. “This enabled me to grow up between these two ideas,” Dixon writes in his autobiography. His mother’s emphasis on words and his father’s emphasis on iconoclasm made Dixon the writer he became.

“My mother wrote a lot of poems herself,” Dixon told Goldmine Magazine in 1982, “but she was kind of spiritually inspired with the biblical thing…. I started to write when I was a kid going to school, maybe 11 years old, because I always thought poetic form things were pretty. I had books of the stuff. I thought I could sell it as poems, but you couldn’t sell no poems or nothing in those days.”

He became popular at school when he made up extra verses to the African-American folk poem, “The Signifying Monkey,” an allegory about race relations that had the monkey repeatedly making a fool of the lion. He hung around the local juke joints and heard the blues singers belting out similar verses; the youngster even befriended Little Brother Montgomery. That gave him the sense that there was a world beyond Vicksburg and ways to make money other than manual labor.

He started running away from home, at first to rural Mississippi and eventually as far as New York City, even Hawaii. He joined a gospel quartet as the bass singer in the Union Jubilee Singers, who had a weekly radio show. He had a stint on a prison farm, and got a job on a steamboat, the Capitol Excursion, that took him south to New Orleans and north to St. Paul. In 1935, he got off at Rock Island, Illinois, and made his way to his sister’s home in Chicago.

Dixon was always a huge man, and years of hard labor on farms, coal yards and boats had made him strong. So his first success in Chicago wasn’t in music but in boxing. In 1937, he won the Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship in the novice division as James Dixon. He went pro and was even Joe Louis’s sparring partner once. But then his independent streak got the best of him when he found he’d been cheated out of his money. He busted up the boxing commission’s office and was banned from fighting.

The same streak surfaced when he was drafted for the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor in 1941. He refused to go; the government threw him in prison and dragged him to court repeatedly. Dixon began agitating the other prisoners and creating a fuss in court about the treatment of black citizens. The government feared that his rebellious spirit might prove contagious and let him go.

“Here’s people that’s been mistreating you and taking advantage of you all these many years,” he told Rolling Stone in 1989, “and I got to go fight to save him, when I can’t save myself from him? Shoo.”

While he’d been training in the gym, however, Dixon had befriended a local guitarist named Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, who played on the street outside. Between bouts, Dixon would go out and harmonize with Caston, who suggested that they form a group. He even bought Dixon a washtub bass (a tin tub, a broomstick and a clothesline). Dixon had never played an instrument before, but he had sung bass and knew that quadrant of the harmony, so he picked up the instrument quickly. After the band took off, he got himself an electric bass but missed the resonance of a big bass. So he traded in the electric for an acoustic.

willie-dixon-2.jpg
Willie Dixon (Courtesy of Capitol Records)
“I first started on the electric bass,” he told Obrecht, “when they first came out with them, you know. But at that particular time they weren’t doing very much rock-style stuff. I found out that the old upright bass gave the type of things that I was doing, like the blues and the spiritual things, a better background sound.”

Dixon and Caston worked as the Bumpin’ Boys and the Five Breezes before World War II. When the war was over they reunited as a trio with Dixon on bass, Caston on guitar and Bernard Dennis on guitar (soon to be replaced by Ollie Crawford). They called themselves the Big Three after World War II’s “big three” of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

The musical Big Three was not a rough-and-rural Southern blues act like those soon to be signed by Chess; they were an urbane northern act, blending two of the most popular trends of the 1940s in African-American music: the jump blues of Louis Jordan with the smooth harmonies of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. That savvy fusion got them signed to Columbia Records, where they made a batch of singles and enjoyed some modest success, especially with the song “Wee Wee Baby.”

That experience served Dixon well when he started working at Chess. It wasn’t just the electrification of the guitar that made Muddy and Wolf sound different in Chicago than such mentors as Charley Patton and Robert Johnson had in Mississippi. It was also the boogie rhythms and vocal harmonies that Dixon added to their records—even on the songs he didn’t write. The Chess Sound wasn’t just the transplanting and amplifying of Mississippi blues; it was their transformation into something new due to Dixon’s education in the Big Three.

That group had done a handful of Dixon’s compositions, but Caston and Crawford worried that his songs were a bit too vivid for the upscale jazz and pop clubs they were playing. The group fell apart in 1951 when Caston’s marital problems led to warrants for his arrest wherever they played.

“Ollie and I used to ignore some of the things he would come up with,” Caston told Don Snowden, the co-author of Dixon’s autobiography. “We were thinking, ‘Ain’t nothing we can do with Dixon.’ After he got with Chess, then we found that these were the tunes he was trying to get us to do…. When we turned around and somebody else was doing them, then we knew what we had bypassed.”

Dixon and Leonard Chess had a contentious relationship over the 17 years they worked together. Dixon didn’t have the capital or business connections to run a record company in a segregated world, so he needed Chess. Chess didn’t have the musical skills to spot the talent, write the songs or run the sessions, so he needed Dixon. But Chess didn’t want to pay a penny more than he absolutely had to for anything, and Dixon knew he was being underpaid. They fussed and fought for years, but in the process they created immortal music.

In 1955, Dixon got so fed up that he left Chess to work at a crosstown label called Cobra, where owner Eli Toscano gave him full creative control. Dixon used that freedom to find and sign three acts that pioneered the West Side Chicago blues sound by fusing the Chess Sound to the single-note lead guitar of B.B. King: Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam. The label’s first single, Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You, Baby,” written and produced by Dixon, became a national top-10 R&B hit.

“I got the opportunity to do more songs in the minor keys over at Cobra,” Dixon writes in his autobiography. “A lot of people didn’t understand minor keys being king of a soulful sound. Everybody would sing and play straight harmony but knowing a third chord, which made it a minor, a lot of people just couldn’t adjust themselves…. Otis Rush liked minor keys once he got involved in it. It wasn’t tough to convince him after he heard the sound.”

Toscano, though, was just as stingy as Chess and a much poorer businessman. Eventually his gambling habit got the best of him, and he sold most of his unreleased tracks to Chess. In 1969, he drowned in Lake Michigan in a suspicious “boating accident.” So Dixon returned to Chess and brought his latest discoveries—Rush and Guy—with him.

Dixon was there when a skinny teenager from St. Louis showed up with a song called “Wee Wee Hours” that imitated Muddy’s sound. Dixon was more interested in his other number, “Maybellene,” a transparent rewrite of the old country standard “Ida Red” with some very sharp lyrics. That sounded a lot more original.

“I knew he was a very good poet,” Dixon told Bill Flanagan in the 1986 book Written in My Soul, “and I liked the way he sang. He was creating this rock style more than the rest of them. The first time I heard him, he had more of a country & western style. At that time he had his song ‘Maybellene’ sounding just like ‘Ida Red.’ I told him he should do something about it…. I made a couple of suggestions and we found a way to record it. I played bass on all his early sessions.”

Dixon didn’t mind Berry borrowing from an old song like “Ida Red,” because the bassist did it himself all the time. “The Red Rooster,” for example, was based on an old blues number that had been recorded by Charley Patton and Memphis Minnie before Dixon rewrote it and produced Howlin’ Wolf’s 1961 version.

As he so often did, however, Dixon distilled the multiple verses by picking out the best lines, adding some of his own and linking them to a streamlined musical framework. In doing this, he was really no different than Robert Johnson, A.P Carter, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Big Bill Broonzy and Bob Dylan, who each adapted many songs in a similar fashion. Sam Cooke renamed the song “Little Red Rooster” and had a top-10 R&B hit with it in 1963. The Rolling Stones recorded it the following year and had a #1 UK hit.

Before they had even recorded as the Rolling Stones, however, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards had attended the first American Folk Blues Festival, which traveled to Europe in 1962 with such performers as T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim and Dixon. The idea was to expose American blues acts to European audiences, and the venture succeeded beyond all hope.

Many young British musicians had been tracking down rare blues records and learning the songs, so they were excited when they got to finally hear their heroes in person. Dixon sized up the situation quickly and started hustling his songs to these kids as he had so often hustled black performers in Chicago. That’s how “The Red Rooster” landed in the hands of the future Stones. Future members of the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac and the Bluesbreakers had the same experience.

“The kids over there were all interested in the blues,” Dixon told Jas Obrecht, “and were asking me about how could they make this in the Chuck Berry style and like this. And I would go to work, just try to explain it to them. Sometimes I would put it on tape for different ones, so different people over there would have my songs. I sung a lot of different songs and left them for the youngsters, just to learn, because they seemed to like the blues real well. I would give them rough ideas about how to go about it, and they’d put it together.”

Dixon went back with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1963 and 1964 and remained a consultant to the tours for many years thereafter. This fueled an explosion in covers of American blues songs by European acts, and no one benefitted more than Dixon, who had his compositions covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Cream, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, the Animals, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Dr. Feelgood, Dave Edmunds and Ten Years After.

Alerted to this goldmine by their British peers, American acts such as the Doors, the J. Geils Band, Otis Redding, B.B. King, Mose Allison, George Thorogood, Steppenwolf, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Grateful Dead, Big Mama Thornton, Tina Turner, the Everly Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley, Dr. John, John Mellencamp, Johnny Rivers, Nina Simone, Ry Cooder, also covered Dixon’s songs.

Most of his most famous compositions were written before 1964, and when Leonard Chess died in 1969, the label went into decline and never really recovered. Dixon, however, began to flourish financially even as his creative powers waned. He had gotten control of his music publishing rights, and the money finally began to flow his way after years of being cheated out of his due.

Once he was financially stable, he began to take control of the business side of things as he had long wanted to. He was able to set up his own foundation (Blues Heaven), his own rehearsal space (the Blues Factory in Chicago), his own record labels (Yambo and Spoonful), his own publishing company (Ghana Music) and his own booking agency (Soul Attractions). Suddenly prosperous, he moved to Glendale, California in 1984 to pitch songs to Hollywood. It worked. He wrote “Don’t Tell Me Nothin’” for Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money in 1986 and produced Bo Diddley’s remake of “Who Do You Love?” for La Bamba in 1988.

“Time changes things,” Dixon told Flanagan. “Some people become wiser with time and some become more foolish because they try to keep things. A man always seeks bigger and better things and tries to get more out of life. If somebody taught me to play a piano and I learned no more than they taught me, I wouldn’t be very much of a piano player. If I can get their ideas and then go further and learn more than they taught me, that will give me a better understanding. A lot of parents want their kids to stay in the same place they were in. but the kid’s supposed to learn from your knowledge and then go further.”

Dixon continued to write and record. Although he had released five albums with Memphis Slim between 1959 and 1962, his first true solo album was Columbia’s 1969 I Am the Blues, a reprise of his most famous compositions with his vocals backed by an all-star blues band. In 1988, Capitol released Hidden Charms, a collection of overlooked Dixon gems produced by T-Bone Burnett. In 1988, MCA released Willie Dixon: The Chess Box, a double-disc set of 36 Dixon compositions as recorded by Muddy, Wolf, Koko, Little Walter, Lowell Fulson, Dixon himself and many more. It’s the best place to start for any exploration of his music.

His first album on his own label was 1971’s Peace, which began a phase of his songwriting where his social commentary became more explicit and more pointed. The title track, “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace),” was a series of rhetorical questions about the inability of the rich and powerful to create peace in the world. A later song, “Pie in the Sky,” questioned the way religion distracted its followers from the problems on earth by promising salvation after death.

“When you do these songs like these,” he told Obrecht, “it makes the average individual think. Because they want to think like this in the first place, but they’re afraid to think like it, because some of them fear after-death and some of them don’t know what they think. You know? So at least it gives them a decision to make one way or the other, because nothing has been actually proved. And this is what the blues are about, you see; the blues explain the facts just like are, whether they are right, wrong, or in between.”

Dixon struggled with diabetes is his later years and finally died of heart failure at age 76 on January 29, 1992, in California. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years later, and Chess Records finally let go of the Dixon recordings buried in their vaults on The Original Wang Dang Doodle: The Chess Recordings & More in 1995.

Like all great writers, Dixon was out to make his audience question previous assumptions and conventional wisdom. That he did it through blues songs rather than Elizabethan sonnets, social-realist novels or post-modernist fiction is beside the point. What matters is that he was able to get his listeners out of the lockbox of their own head and into another person’s perspective. And until you can make that leap, you can never get past your prejudices and blind spots. Melodrama may push our buttons to evoke sympathy, but great art creates empathy, the ability to understand how another person thinks and feels.

“A blues song lets you put yourself in the place of someone else,” Dixon told Flanagan. “You listen to the song and say, ‘I know how that guy feels.’ When you’re writing a song you’re projecting how somebody else feels. ‘How would I feel if that happened to me?’”

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