Father of Modern Chicago Blues: Willie Dixon wrote hundreds of songs that shaped post-World War II Blues and Rock and Roll


Willie Dixon’s contribution to blues music is unparalleled, which is why he has earned the legacy of being recognized as the “Father of the Modern Chicago Blues” through hard work, talent, passion, toughness, generousity and outright tenacity.

Willie Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1981: Wikimedia Commons

Willie Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1981: Wikimedia Commons

Dixon’s most enduring contribution to the blues begins with his work for Chess Records and its subsidiary Checker Records in Chicago between 1948 and the early 1960’s. He started as a recording artist, but quickly became a full-time employee in 1951 and focused on his role as a producer, talent scout, session musician and staff songwriter.

Dixon’s talent as a songwriter was fully appreciated with the release of Muddy Waters’ recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in 1954. The video below is a version of the song played in 1960 at the Newport Jazz Festival. Dixon established himself as Chess Records’ most reliable songwriter with “Evil” by Howlin’ Wolf, and “My Babe” by Little Walter.

Dixon played an important role in linking the blues and rock and roll, by working with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the late 1950s. Dixon’ made a major contribution to the British Invasion of American in mid-1960’s. The Rolling Stones reached No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart with their cover version of Dixon’s song “Little Red Rooster” in 1964. Led Zeppelin’s first album included Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, while cream played “Spoonful” and other Dixon songs. As a result, the blues boom in England was based on many songs that had been written by Dixon.

During the mid-’60s, Dixon organized the musical side of the American Folk-Blues Festival, which involved taking the top blues talent in America on a yearly tour of the European continent.  In the following video Dixon shows his mastery of the bass on a song called “Bassology”, as part of a European tour.

By the late 1950’s, Dixon started to develop his own recording career, which was put on hold when he started to work at Chess Records. His first album, Willie’s Blues, was recorded with Memphis Slim in 1959. He then recorded a series of albums in a duet format with Memphis Slim on the Folkways, Verve and Battles labels.

From the late 1960s until the middle 1970s, Dixon ran his own record label, Yambo Records. In 1970, Dixon released a number of his best known songs on his first solo album, I Am the Blues on Columbia Records. The next video is a version of “I am the Blues” sung by Dixon at the New Generation of Chicago Blues concert in Berlin in 1977.

Dixon’s health started to deteriorate in the seventies and the eighties from diabetes and he had one of his legs amputated. He had bypass surgery in 1987. But, in 1988, he released of Hidden Charms, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording. Dixon died at the age of seventy-six of heart failure at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank, California on Jan. 29, 1992. He was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. In the following video, Dixon is posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the “early influences” (pre-rock) category in 1994.

However, before Dixon died, his mission was to promote the legacy of the blues. He developed a strategic plan and founded a non-profit organization in 1987 called the Blues Heaven Foundation. The organization is designed to protect artists’ copy rights and royalties, as well as promote the blues through scholarships and educational programs.

Willie and Marie Dixon: Blues Heaven Foundation

Willie and Marie Dixon: Blues Heaven Foundation

Marie Dixon, the widow of Willie Dixon, moved operations of the foundation to the Chess Studios Building in Chicago in 1997. She bought the building and saved it from demolition. Dixon and his grandson, Alex Dixon, were inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame on April 28, 2013. Alex works at the Blues Heaven Foundation.

Blues Heaven Foundation in old Chess Records Building

Blues Heaven Foundation in old Chess Records Building

Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915. His mother Daisy often rhymed the things she said, a habit Willie imitated. Dixon’s father sang blues in the field when he was working. As a teenager, Willie learned to sing harmony from local carpenter Leo Phelp and sang bass in his gospel quartet. Dixon began to adapt the poems he was writing into songs, and even sold some to local music groups.

While travelling to Chicago on the rails in 1936, Dixon was arrested for hoboing and sent to a work camp. When Dixon arrived in Chiacgo, he pursued boxing career. At 6 feet six inches tall and 250 lbs, he won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937 and turned professional. Dixon’s boxing career ended after four fights, when he was cheated out of money and suspended for brawling with his managers in the boxing commissioner’s office. However, at the gym Dixon met Leonard Caston, who encouraged him to pursue a music career.

Caston and Dixon were founding members in 1939 of a group named the Five Breezes, which blended blues, jazz, and vocal harmonies. The start of World War II interrupted Dixon’s progress on the upright bass, when he was arrested for ignoring his draft papers. He was put in prison for ten months as a conscientious objector. Dixon spent a year in prison and after being released he formed a group named the Four Jumps of Jive. He then reunited with Caston and formed the Big Three Trio. The group went on to record for Columbia Records.

Big Thre Trio

Big Three Trio

In summary, Dixon’s main contributions to the development of blues are being: a master bass player, guitarist and vocalist; a prolific song writer, talent scout, producer and record company executive; and the most influential person in shaping post-World War II Chicago blues, as well as Rock and Roll.