Willie Dixon

Sometimes you have to look behind the scenes to find the true facts. Sometimes it takes a scan of the credits to get past the bright, stra-time glare of the marquee lights shinning on the performers in order to discover the unsung heroes who played equally pivotal roles in creating the music. Sometimes even that does not help, particularly in the world of early blues when floating pools of session players often anonymously gave each label's artists an identifiying sonic stamp and the accuracy of songwriting credits were suspect at best.

Few, if any, of those unheralded behind the scenes operatives loom larger in the annals of Blues music than Willie Dixon....and not mearly because of the vast physical dimentions of the man. As the backbone of the Chess operation during its heyday -- a multi-faceted role as songwriter, house bassist on "everbody's everything," studio band leader and de facto arranger/producer on virtually all the labels major blues hits - Willie Dixon's part in shaping the sound of modern Chicago blues can hardly be overestimated.

Willie Dixon's way with words began to be honed not long after he was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915. His mother Daisey, habitually tried to turn everything she said into rhymes,and Willie quickly followed suit. His first musical influence came at 7, when he would take off from school to spend the afternoon scampering through the dusty streets of Vicksburg behind a truck pulling a band featuring pianist Little Brother Montgomery.

In 1945 Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston and Willie teamed up to form the Big Three Trio along with guitaristBernardo Dennis (who was replaced by Ollie Crawford a year later). Their hometown gigs were mostly in Chicago's downtown loop district playing for predominantly white audiences, but they also frequently joined in at late night jam sessions with Muddy Waters and the core of Chicago's developing blues community.

One south side gig at the El Casino Club led to Dixon occasionally paticipating in jam sessions around the corner at the El Mocamba, a jumping joint run by a pair of Polish emigres named Leonard and Phil Chess. Dixon noted that the brothers Chess were trying to get a record company off the ground; the brothers Chess noted Dixon was a solid bass player with studio experience any fledgling company could use.

Dixon had picked up that experience working sessions for Lester Melrose, the "go-between man" whom, along with J. Mayo Williams, served as the conduit to such labels as Bluebird and Okeh for Chicago's black blues community. Usually playing on a tin can bass, Dixon backed up artists like Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson, Lil Green and other memebers of Chicago's old blues guard.

Despite the image of Chicago blues as a raw, guitar and harmonica- dominated sound, Dixon's own tracks indicate that, as early as 1951, he was no stranger to light, lilting horns and piano sound he used later to fashion Chess selections by Willie Mabon, Lowell Fulson and Jimmy Whitherspoon.

Nor does it require an advanced degree in music theory to recognize the rhythmic connection between Dixon's "29 Ways" and Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy." But is was not until the night he corralled Muddy Waters at a Chicago club, herded Muddy into the men's room between sets to teach him the diamond-hard riff and boastful lyrics of "Hoochie Coochie Man" that Dixon became a songwriting force to be recond with. It was a classic case of the right singer for the right song. Framed by archetypal riff, Muddy's vocals leap out like a shot, adding a tough bravado to Dixon's music, which had begun to move towards the rough and tumble edge that had became synonymous with the sound of Chicago blues. Willie has said " I've been real lucky about writing people songs, but a lot of times if I picked a song, the guy didn't want the song for himself. You had to use backwards psychology --I'd say this is a song for Muddy Waters if I wanted Howlin Wolf to do it because they seemed to have a little thing going on between them".

Between 1957 - 1959 Willie took his multiple skills across town to the West Side and the fledgling Cobra label. There he instantly established Cobra's credibility with Otis Rush's "I Can't Quit You, Baby". His arranging, production and songwriting savvy helped then-unproven artists like Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam make their initial mark in the blues world, but finacial difficulties with cobra brought Dixon back to Chess in 1959.

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1960 Spoonful 4.00 stars CD
New Music I Comments:
You've got to hand it to the Kronos Quartet. They've figured it out: you play a piece because it's great, not because it's part of the string quartet repertoire, or even because it's "classical." If that means a concert program that features works by both Bo Diddley and Alfred Schnittke, so be it. They've also figured out that once you hook audiences by playing string quartet arrangements of Bo Diddley, you can use the profits to commission pieces from the best living composers, and those same audiences will then sit and listen to them. This, more than anything else, constitutes the Kronos Quartet's great contribution to classical music. In typical Kronos style, Short Stories is a wildly varying amalgam of pieces; it ranges from modern but sober compositions by Henry Cowell and Sofia Gubaidulina to a cartoon-music experiment by downtown icon John Zorn (in honor of Carl Stalling, who wrote the music to most of the Bugs Bunny cartoons) and Elliott Sharp's "Digital," a piece for string-quartet-as-percussion-ensemble. Frankly, those are the pieces that work the best. The arrangement of Willie Dixon's Chicago blues classic "Spoonful" is better in theory than in practice, and there are a few other slow points as well. But that's the risk you take with this group, and it's worth it!

Kronos Quartet