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Remembering Willie Dixon

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Maybe it was presumptuous of Willie Dixon to call his 1989 autobiography I Am the Blues, but the blues — and its bratty offspring, rock & roll — wouldn’t be the same without him. Dixon, who died Jan. 29 of heart failure at the age of 76, wrote more than 500 songs — among them such down ‘n’ dirty masterpieces as ”Spoonful,” ”Hoochie Coochie Man,” ”Wang Dang Doodle,” and ”I Just Want to Make Love to You” — creating the basic repertoire of urban blues, songs that had a profound influence on major rock bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, both of whom did Dixon tunes on their first albums. Says bluesman Robert Cray, who named his first record, Who’s Been Talkin’, after a Dixon song: ”Willie Dixon was probably the best of all blues writers.”

Unlike other blues greats, Dixon earned his fame by putting words in other people’s mouths. His own singing never had the supple expressiveness of the immortals, so Dixon worked mostly as the house bassist and occasional producer for Chess Records, the label that exported Chicago blues to the rest of the world. Dixon played behind blues and rock greats, from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — often recording his own tunes. This music became essential listening among young rockers in the ’60s. For bands like Cream, the Yardbirds, the Doors, and the Allman Brothers, covering a Dixon song was both a sign of respect and a badge of authenticity.

A giant in more ways than one — at 6-foot-4, his solid frame carried well over 300 pounds — Dixon drew upon some of his own hard times when he wrote. Born in Vicksburg, Miss., the seventh of 14 kids in a broken home, he had a rough-and-tumble adolescence, traveling around the country from the age of 12 and getting arrested for theft and hoboing. Dixon turned to music after moving to Chicago in the mid-’30s. One of his own groups, the Big Three Trio, had an R&B hit in 1948 with ”You Sure Looked Good to Me,” and he made occasional solo albums up until 1988. But it was his writing — as rich and potent as good earth — that made him so important. ”He put a fire under the blues,” says Koko Taylor, who had a hit in 1966 with ”Wang Dang Doodle.” ”There’ll never be another Willie Dixon.”

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