Willie Dixon

William James Dixon (July 1, 1915  January 29, 1992) was an American blues musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and record producer.[2] He was proficient in playing both the upright bass and the guitar, and sang with a distinctive voice, but he is perhaps best known as one of the most prolific songwriters of his time. Next to Muddy Waters, Dixon is recognized as the most influential person in shaping the post–World War II sound of the Chicago blues.[3]

Willie Dixon
Dixon at Harry Hope's in Cary, Illinois, 1979
Background information
Birth nameWilliam James Dixon
Born(1915-07-01)July 1, 1915
Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedJanuary 29, 1992(1992-01-29) (aged 76)
Burbank, California[1]
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • arranger
  • record producer
  • boxer
  • Vocals
  • double bass
Years active1939–1992
Associated actsBig Three Trio

Dixon's songs have been recorded by countless musicians in many genres as well as by various ensembles in which he participated. A short list of his most famous compositions includes "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You", "Little Red Rooster", "My Babe", "Spoonful", and "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover".[4] These songs were written during the peak years of Chess Records, from 1950 to 1965, and were performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley; they influenced a generation of musicians worldwide.[5]

Dixon was an important link between the blues and rock and roll, working with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the late 1950s. His songs have been adapted by numerous rock artists; Jeff Beck, Canned Heat, Cream, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Steppenwolf all featured at least one of his songs on their debut albums.[6]

He received a Grammy Award and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.


Early life

Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 1, 1915.[2] He was one of fourteen children.[7] His mother, Daisy, often rhymed things she said, a habit her son imitated. At the age of seven, young Dixon became an admirer of a band that featured pianist Little Brother Montgomery. He sang his first song at Springfield Baptist Church at the age of four[8] Dixon was first introduced to blues when he served time on prison farms in Mississippi as a young teenager. Later in his teens, he learned how to sing harmony from a local carpenter, Theo Phelps, who led a gospel quintet, the Union Jubilee Singers, in which Dixon sang bass; the group regularly performed on the Vicksburg radio station WQBC.[9] He began adapting his poems into songs and even sold some to local music groups.


Dixon left Mississippi for Chicago in 1936.[7] A man of considerable stature, standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing over 250 pounds, he took up boxing, at which he was successful, winning the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937.[10] He became a professional boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis's sparring partner, but after four fights he left boxing in a dispute with his manager over money.

Dixon met Leonard Caston at a boxing gym, where they would harmonize at times. Dixon performed in several vocal groups in Chicago, but it was Caston that persuaded him to pursue music seriously.[11] Caston built him his first bass, made of a tin can and one string. Dixon's experience singing bass made the instrument familiar.[8] He also learned to play the guitar.

In 1939, Dixon was a founding member of the Five Breezes, with Caston, Joe Bell, Gene Gilmore and Willie Hawthorne. The group blended blues, jazz, and vocal harmonies, in the mode of the Ink Spots. Dixon's progress on the upright bass came to an abrupt halt with the advent of World War II, when he refused induction into military service as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for ten months.[2] He refused to go to war because he would not fight for a nation in which institutionalized racism and racist laws were prevalent.[12] After the war, he formed a group named the Four Jumps of Jive. He then reunited with Caston, forming the Big Three Trio,[7] which went on to record for Columbia Records.

Pinnacle of career

Dixon signed with Chess Records as a recording artist, but he began performing less, being more involved with administrative tasks for the label. By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer, talent scout, session musician and staff songwriter. He was also a producer for the Chess subsidiary Checker Records. His relationship with Chess was sometimes strained, but he stayed with the label from 1948 to the early 1960s. During this time Dixon's output and influence were prodigious. From late 1956 to early 1959, he worked in a similar capacity for Cobra Records, for which he produced early singles for Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy.[13] He later recorded for Bluesville Records. From the late 1960s until the mid-1970s, Dixon ran his own record label, Yambo Records, and two subsidiary labels, Supreme and Spoonful. He released his 1971 album, Peace?, on Yambo and also singles by McKinley Mitchell, Lucky Peterson and others.[14]

Dixon is considered one of the key figures in the creation of Chicago blues. He worked with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Joe Louis Walker, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, Washboard Sam, Jimmy Rogers, Sam Lay and others.

In December 1964, the Rolling Stones reached number one on the UK Singles Chart with their cover of Dixon's "Little Red Rooster".[15] In the same year, the group also covered "I Just Want To Make Love To You" on their debut album, The Rolling Stones.

In his later years, Dixon became a tireless ambassador for the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the blues and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past. Speaking with the simple eloquence that was a hallmark of his songs, Dixon claimed, "The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It's better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues." In 1977, unhappy with the small royalties paid by Chess's publishing company, Arc Music, Dixon and Muddy Waters sued Arc and, with the proceeds from the settlement, founded their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music.[16]

In 1987, Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with the rock band Led Zeppelin after suing for plagiarism in the band's use of his music in "Bring It On Home" and lyrics from his composition "You Need Love" (1962) in the band's recording of "Whole Lotta Love".[17]

Death and legacy

Dixon's health increasingly deteriorated during the 1970s and the 1980s, primarily as a result of long-term diabetes. Eventually one of his legs was amputated.[2]

Dixon was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, in the inaugural session of the Blues Foundation's ceremony.[18] In 1989 he received a Grammy Award for his album Hidden Charms.[19]

Dixon died of heart failure on January 29, 1992, in Burbank, California,[2] and was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois. After his death, his widow, Marie Dixon, took over the Blues Heaven Foundation and moved the headquarters to Chess Records.[20] Dixon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influences (pre-rock) in 1994.[21] On April 28, 2013, both Dixon and his grandson Alex Dixon were inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame.[22]

The actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer portrayed Dixon in Cadillac Records, a 2008 film based on the early history of Chess Records.[23][24]

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Willie Dixon among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[25]


  • The Canadian rock musician Tom Cochrane wrote the song "Willie Dixon Said", which is included on his 1999 album X-Ray Sierra.
  • Bob Dylan credited Dixon for the music of the song "My Wife's Hometown" on his album Together Through Life and gave special thanks to Dixon's estate.



Year Title Label Number Comments
1959Willie's BluesBluesvilleBVLP-1003With Memphis Slim
1960Blues Every Which WayVerveMGV-3007With Memphis Slim[26]
1960Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon[27]FolkwaysFW-2385
1962Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon at the Village GateFolkwaysFA-2386Live, with Pete Seeger
1963In Paris: Baby Please Come Home!BattleBM-6122With Memphis Slim, 1962
1970I Am the BluesColumbiaPC-9987With the Chicago All Stars; also released on DVD, 2003
1971Willie Dixon's Peace?Yambo777-15With the Chicago All Stars
1973CatalystOvationOVQD-1433Quadraphonic pressing
1976What Happened to My BluesOvationOV-1705
1983Mighty Earthquake and HurricanePausaPR-7157
1985Willie Dixon: Live (Backstage Access)PausaPR-7183With Sugar Blue and Clifton James, Montreux, 1985
1988Hidden CharmsBugC1-90593Grammy-winning album
1988Willie Dixon: The Chess BoxChessCHD2-16500Mix of Dixon's own with well-known Chess artists' recordings
1989Ginger Ale AfternoonVarèse SarabandeVSD-5234Soundtrack for movie of the same name
1990The Big Three TrioLegacyC-46216Recorded 1947–1952
1993Willie Dixon's Blues DixonaryRootsRTS 33046EAN: 8712177013760
1995The Original Wang Dang Doodle: The Chess RecordingsMCA93531954–1990 recordings (some previously unreleased)
1996Crying the Blues: Live in ConcertThunderboltCDTB-166Live, with Johnny Winter and the Chicago All Stars, Houston, 1971
1998Good AdviceWolf120,700Live, with the Chicago All Stars, Long Beach, 1991
1998I Think I Got the BluesPrevue17
2001Big Boss Men: Blues Legends of the SixtiesIndigo (UK)IGOXCD543Live, Houston, 1971–72 (six tracks)
2008Giant of the BluesBlues Boulevard Records250196EAN: 5413992501960

As sideman

In addition to songwriting, arranging, and producing, Dixon also contributed to recording sessions on double bass.[2] However, as electric bass became dominant in the 1960s, his role as a sideman declined.[2] Albums which contain some songs he recorded (along with other bassists) include:

Chuck Berry

Bo Diddley

Fleetwood Mac with Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, et al.

Howlin' Wolf

Sam Lazar

Little Walter

Jimmy Rogers

Johnny Shines

  • Last Night's Dream (Warner Bros. Records, 1968)

Muddy Waters

Sonny Boy Williamson II


  1. buried: Burr Oak Cemetery, Acacia Lawn, lot 18, grave 1, Burr Oak Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3rd ed.). 2 (Kindle location 12459). McFarland & Company. Kindle edition.
  2. Eder, Bruce. "Willie Dixon: Biography, Credits, Discography". AllMusic.com. Retrieved March 13, 2013.
  3. Trager, Oliver (2004). Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Billboard Books. pp. 298–299. ISBN 0-8230-7974-0.
  4. Palmer 1982, p. 98.
  5. Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. McFarland. p. 87. ISBN 0-7864-0606-2.
  6. Rock musicians who recorded a Dixon song for their debut albums include Jeff Beck ("I Ain't Superstitious" and "You Shook Me"), Canned Heat ("Evil Is Going On"), Cream ("Spoonful"), the Doors ("Back Door Man"), Led Zeppelin ("I Can't Quit You Baby"), the Rolling Stones ("I Just Want to Make Love to You"), and Steppenwolf ("Hoochie Coochie Man"). Dixon & Snowden 1990, Appendix 2.
  7. Palmer 1982, p. 166.
  8. Long, Worth (1995). "The Wisdom of the Blues—Defining Blues as the True Facts of Life: An Interview with Willie Dixon." African American Review 29.2. pp. 207–212. JSTOR. Web. October 2, 2015.
  9. Dixon & Snowden 1990, pp. 25, 34.
  10. Snowden 1997, Box set booklet.
  11. Eder, Bruce (2010). "Leonard Caston". Biography of Leonard Caston. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  12. Baird, Jim (2014). "Book Review: Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues." Journal of American Folklore 127: 100–101. ProQuest.Web. October 3, 2015.
  13. Dixon & Snowden 1990, pp. 103–112.
  14. Dixon & Snowden 1990, p. 244.
  15. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records. p. 458. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  16. Mitsutoshi 2010, p. 67.
  17. Mitsutoshi 2010, p. 197.
  18. "1980 Hall of Fame Inductees Archived March 5, 2007, at the Wayback Machine". Blues Foundation. Blues.org. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  19. "Willie Dixon Timeline". Chicago: Blues Heaven Foundation. BluesHeaven.com. 2007. Retrieved July 18, 2009.
  20. Barretta, Scott (2008). "Voices from Chicago: Jackie Dixon." Living Blues 05: 38–39. ProQuest. Web. October 3, 2015.
  21. Rule, Sheila (January 20, 1994). "Rock Greats Hail, Hail Their Own at Spirited Hall of Fame Ceremony". New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  22. "2013 Chicago Blues Hall of Fame". Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  23. Simmons, Leslie (January 22, 2008). "Brody, Wright Join Musical Chess Club". Reuters. Retrieved January 25, 2012.
  24. Mayberry, Carly (February 12, 2008). "Alessandro Nivola to Play Blues Mogul in 'Chess'". Reuters. Retrieved January 25, 2012.
  25. Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  26. "Verve Records Discography: 1960". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved January 1, 2010.
  27. Songs of Memphis Slim and "Wee Willie" Dixon. Folkways Records. Retrieved January 1, 2010.


  • Dixon, Willie; Snowden, Don (1990). I Am the Blues. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80415-8.
  • Inaba, Mitsutoshi (2011). Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6993-6.
  • Palmer, Robert (1982). Deep Blues. New York City: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14006-223-8.
  • Dixon, Willie (1992). Willie Dixon: Master Blues Composer, with Notes and Tablature. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-7935-0305-1.
  • Snowden, Don (1997). Willie Dixon: Chess Box (Box set booklet). Willie Dixon. Universal City, California: Chess Records/MCA Records.
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