Legendary blues writer and producer Willie Dixon dies of heart failure

January 30, 1992|By New York Times

Willie Dixon, who wrote blues standards and produced many classic blues albums, died of heart failure yesterday at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif. He was 76 and lived in southern California.

As a songwriter, producer, arranger and bassist, Dixon was a towering figure in the creation of Chicago blues, which was in turn a cornerstone of rock 'n' roll.

His songs were performed by leading blues figures, including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and picked up by rock bands including the Rolling Stones, Cream and the Doors. The lusty imagery, laconic humor and hints of mysterious ritual in his best songs made them sound like age-old folk poems.

Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1915. By the early 1930s, he was writing songs and selling them to a local country band. He also joined a gospel group, the Jubilee Singers.

In 1936, he moved to Chicago to become a boxer. He won the Illinois State Golden Gloves heavyweight championship (novice division) in 1937, but a fight with his manager soon ended that career.

He returned to music, singing and playing bass with Leonard (Baby Doo) Caston, and made his first records for the Bluebird label as a member of the Five Breezes in 1940.

In 1941, he refused induction into the Army. "I didn't feel I had to gobecause of the conditions that existed among my people," he said later. After a year in and out of jail, Dixon formed the Four Jumps of Jive, who recorded for Mercury.

In 1945, Dixon and Caston formed the Big Three Trio, a rhythm-and-blues vocal group that had a hit with "Wee Wee Baby, You Sure Look Good to Me" in 1946. Playing a one-stringed bass with a tin can resonator, Dixon also backed up Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie and other blues musicians at recording sessions. Dixon started playing studio sessions for Chess Records in 1948, and after the Big Three dissolved in 1951 he started working for Chess full time.

He recorded for Chess as a singer but was far more successful as a songwriter, beginning with his first major blues hit, Muddy Waters' 1954 "Hoochie Koochie Man," with its stop-time riff.

At Chess and, from 1957 to 1959, at Cobra Records, he provided songs and guidance for Little Walter, Lowell Fulson, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and, most importantly, Howlin' Wolf, for whom he wrote "Back Door Man," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Spoonful," "Little Red Rooster," "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" and other blues classics.

At Chess, he also played bass behind Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and worked with gospel singers and vocal groups. Dixon took hard Chicago blues to Europe as the band leader for the traveling American Folk Blues festival from 1962 to 1964. There his songs inspired the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.

As the Chess label shifted away from blues, Dixon turned to performing, leading a band called the Chicago All-Stars.

He recorded for the Columbia, Ovation, Pausa and Capitol labels; he also wrote a song for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's film "The Color of Money" and produced Bo Diddley's remake of "Who Do You Love" in the movie "La Bamba."

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