Willie Dixon

updated 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The big man squeezed into the front of the dark limousine, filling the leather passenger seat. The driver had wanted to talk about the blues during their 30-minute drive to L.A., and the big man, bound for that night's Grammy Awards, was happy to oblige. Willie Dixon was always willing to talk about the blues.

As they made their way down the California freeways that cold February afternoon a year ago, the driver pulled out his harmonica and started playing. His passenger seemed impressed, so he continued, steering with one hand and holding his harmonica with the other. When their traveling was done, Dixon wrote down his phone number and told the driver to give him a call sometime. If blues were what he liked, maybe Willie could show him a little something....

Fact is, Willie Dixon has been showing the world the ways of the blues for most of his 74 years. As bassman, songwriter and arranger for Chicago's Chess Records back in the '50s and '60s, he helped mold the gritty, gut-beat urban sounds that would later inspire a generation of rockers. Perhaps the most recorded songwriter ever in the blues idiom (BMI lists about 450 Dixon titles), he had heard his words and music pounding through the repertoires of performers as various as Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Huey Lewis and Oingo Boingo.

Now in his 50th year of making records, Dixon hasn't let age, diabetes or the resulting amputation of a leg slow his tempo. He collected a platinum record in 1988 for producing a part of the La Bambn sound track, lent his own gravelly, Grand Canyon bass to a background vocal for The Color of Money and this year walked off with his first-ever Grammy when his latest LP, Hidden Charms, won the award for Best Blues Album of the Year. This summer his autobiography, I Am the Blues, written with music critic Don Snowden, was published in England, and on Aug. 25 the film Ginger Ale Afternoon opened in L.A., its sound track composed and produced by Willie Dixon.

The film is a small one made on a lunch-box budget, but like his music, says Willie, "it reflects the facts of life." And for Dixon, that life has at last hit the smooth homestretch where the deserving collect their due. Belatedly won royalties have bought him a three-bedroom home in Glendale, Calif., where he has lived with his wife, Marie, for the past five years. A baby grand sits in the living room, a color TV in the den, and a dozen awards hang on one wall. Outside, the scene is leafy suburban, with an orange tree in the backyard. It is all very quiet and comfortable. It is, in fact, a great many songs and a million miles from where Dixon's odyssey began.

That faraway place was Vicksburg, Miss., where he was one of seven survivors among 14 children. Home turf then was a poor, mixed-race neighborhood where the realities of blacks' bottom-rung status could never be ignored. Dixon can remember Ku Klux Klansmen marching past his house, and he can tell of times when blacks walked in gutters, surrendering the sidewalks to whites.

At 12, he got a personal dose of reality when he was caught stealing $2 worth of doorknobs from an abandoned house and sentenced to a year on a prison farm. He served nine months, working in the fields and hearing the blues at their most basic. "A lot of times prisoners wasn't allowed to talk," he says, "so in passin' messages to each other, they had to sing it. And the prisoner would be singin' to the rhythm of what he was doin'—choppin' cotton, choppin' wood...."

When Dixon was 13, his stepfather was crushed to death in a sawmill accident, leaving the children's mother to support them on the income from a neighborhood restaurant. That year Willie headed north for the home of a sister, riding railroad boxcars for transport. In Clarksdale, Miss., he and his fellow stowaways were nabbed by railroad detectives, and the blacks among them were taken to jail. He was given a 30-day stretch at the Harvey Allen County Farm, and it was there, he says, "where I found out the difference between a man and a child."

For blacks like Dixon on Southern prison farms, short terms given in court could turn into life terms in custody—and life could be short. "They had no mercy on nobody," he says of the guards. "I remember there was an old man, they called him Preacher, and they beat him to death with a strap. You never heard a man call on God like this old man called on God for his life. To see an old man prayin', and somebody beatin' him to death..." Dixon waited his chance and made a break, dodging the bloodhounds on his track by hiding in the waters of the Yazoo River.

He made his way to Memphis, 40 miles away, then north to Chicago. Riding the rails east, he lived in hobo jungles, found odd jobs, and lost his shoes to a thief one night while sleeping in a park. When hard times finally led him back to Mississippi, he found work on the Vicksburg docks for a dollar a day, shoveling coal and doing the grunt work to which a fifth-grade education had relegated him. But he also began to sing, joining a gospel group formed by a local carpenter. It was then that he learned the skills of harmony that he would take to Chicago when he eventually headed north again in 1936.

By then, years of labor had turned him into a stone-hard 230-pounder, and within a year Dixon had won the Illinois Golden Gloves (novice division) heavyweight boxing title. He briefly turned pro, but gave that up after four fights when an argument over prize money led to a brawl in the boxing commissioner's office and a suspension. But by that time Dixon had met a Chicago musician named Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston, and soon he was singing to street-corner crowds, in tiny clubs and "makin' more money passin' the hat than I was fightin.' "

He began playing a one-string, oil-drum bass and later switched to an upright fiddle when a club owner decided to spiff' up the group with some store-bought instruments. Then in 1941 Dixon's burgeoning music career suddenly came to a halt when he was hauled from the stage one night and taken to jail for ignoring an Army draft notice. Schooled by now in the ways of racism, Dixon says simply that he "didn't feel like I would have been justified at goin' to sacrifice my life for somebody that didn't appreciate it."

After countless court appearances and months in jail, he was finally released. He and Caston eventually linked up again in a group called the Big Three Trio, specializing in slick, Mills Brothers-style vocals. This time they hit the pop charts with a tune titled "Wee Wee Baby (You Sure Look Good to Me)" and rode its airplay into the Midwest nightclub circuit.

But another type of music was also finding an audience. Blacks who had migrated north for jobs had brought with them a taste for the rough, rural blues of home, and the South Side clubs of Chicago were alive with the earthy rhythms of Muddy Waters, Elmore James and other transplanted Mississippi bluesmen. The Big Three performed their white-oriented pop tunes for uptown audiences each evening, then traveled downtown for all-night jam sessions in the noisy clubs where blues prevailed.

In the late '40s Dixon met Elenora Franklin, a woman several years his junior, who would become his common-law wife and the mother of his first seven children. He also met Leonard and Phil Chess, Russian-born brothers who were hoping to capitalize on the growing black urban audience for blues. Hired as Chess Records' bass player, arranger and song doctor, Dixon began turning the often rough-hewn songs of the company's artists into salable singles. But as a songwriter he had only occasional success getting his tunes recorded until he pitched a number titled "Hoochie Coochie Man" to guitarist Muddy Waters. Waters liked the song but didn't have time to work out a guitar part. One night Dixon pulled him into a nightclub men's room and laid out a five-note pattern that the bluesman could play before every line. The song—and its signature riff—became a 1954 blues hit and a Waters standard.

Soon Dixon was pouring out scores of songs, then meticulously guiding their production in the studio. He was the perfect middleman between the Chess brothers and their often untutored, rural-bred performers. Howlin' Wolf, a burly 300-pounder from West Point, Miss., could muscle a blues vocal as powerfully as he could drive farm mules, but he could neither read nor write and regarded advice as a kind of assault. At recording sessions, Dixon would stand beside him whispering his lyrics, line by line, into the singer's ear. Dixon was "the only one that could really talk to the blues guys," says guitarist Cash McCall, a longtime session player at Chess. "The only one."

As a player, Dixon thumped his own bass lines through hundreds of records. When Chuck Berry signed with Chess in 1955, it was Willie's upright fiddle that played on "Maybellene," "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and the rest of Berry's hits through the late '50s. "If you ever want to hear a bass player, Willie was a bass player, not one of them we call a bass holder," says Clifton James, a veteran drummer in the Chess house band. "He knew what he was doin.' "

What he didn't know at first were the shady ways common to the music business then. According to Dixon, the Chess brothers initially paid him by the session and later gave him a meager $75 a week—against his songwriting royalties—and assigned ownership of his copyrights to the publishing arm of their company. By 1955 Willie's common-law marriage had foundered, and he had met Marie Booker, a 19-year-old waitress who would bear him five more children. While cranking out hits for Chess, he struggled to support two families and suffered.

With the blues market limited to a mostly black audience, and Chess its main supplier, there were few alternatives. Dixon left Chess for a while, but returned to become again its principal producer, songwriter—and frequently its best talent scout. Koko Taylor, now a five-time Grammy nominee and winner of the 1985 Blues Album of the Year award, was a 37-year-old Chicago domestic in 1965 when Dixon heard her singing one night and asked if she'd like to record. "I told him, 'I don't know,' because I didn't even know the meaning of the word 'recording,' " recalls Taylor. Within months she had her first hit, a raucous party song by Dixon titled "Wang Dang Doodle" that became a million-seller.

With the onslaught of rock in the '60s, however, the blues market began to fade. British groups like the Yardbirds and Cream began mining his material, crafting the gutsy Chess sound he had created into hard-rock blues. The Rolling Stones (who took their name from an old Muddy Waters tune) recorded Dixon songs like "Little Red Rooster" and "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" and went to the Chess studios in Chicago to record their first American-made singles.

Other rockers dipped into Dixon's repertoire and found more gold. Johnny Rivers hit the Top 10 with Dixon's "Seventh Son;" Elvis Presley borrowed "My Babe;" Cream recorded Spoonful. When the Doors' Jim Morrison slithered through "Back Door Man," it was a Dixon song he was singing. Even country boys Hank Williams Jr. and John Anderson later joined the parade with "Can't Judge a Book (By Its Cover)," a tune Dixon had written for former Chess stablemate Bo Diddley.

To his bewilderment at times, Dixon's modest home in Chicago became a stopping place for rockers rooted in his blues. When the Rolling Stones dropped by, "I was living on a one-way street at a little house, and here comes nine limousines full of folks," says Willie. "The neighborhood was just overrun with people," recalls his wife. "My doorbell was ringin', my telephone was ringin', kids was screamin.' The noise was too much to take." Way too much, apparently. Says Marie of the would-be guests: "I did not allow them in the home."

In 1973 Dixon linked up with Scott Cameron, a white, Wisconsin-born booking agent, who became both his manager and legal champion in the battle over copyrights. "I had the lowest confidence in all of humanity until I met Scott," Dixon says now. "And I didn't trust him at first. Took a long time, but I found out the guy's all right." Cameron engineered an out-of-court settlement to restore Dixon's copyrights once their first 28-year period of assignment had ended, and he later won a settlement from Led Zeppelin, arguing that their 1969 hit, "Whole Lotta Love," was a retooled version of a Dixon song recorded by Muddy Waters.

Yet while Dixon was winning on some fronts, he was losing badly on others. A longtime diabetic condition, exacerbated by his 280-lb. massiveness, led to the amputation of his right leg in 1977 and to surgery for vascular problems in his neck.

But like the songs he has written, Dixon endured. After moving to Southern California in 1984, he put a new spin on his career by doing TV commercials for Coca-Cola, Nabisco Brands, Gain detergent and other companies. Backed by the Grammy success of his last album, he is talking now of plans for a new LP and perhaps even a songbook. Meanwhile his Blues Heaven Foundation, Inc., launched in 1982, has become an annual funder of scholarships for college students and a donor of musical instruments to city schools around the country. "The world been fightin' ever since Cain hit Abel with the table leg," says Dixon. "Music can help make peace."

And for him, obviously, a legacy as well. But even now, in his eighth decade, it is a legacy to which the onetime big man of Chicago blues still hopes to add. Last month, when Ginger Ale Afternoon—and the sound track he created—premiered in L.A., Dixon was on hand for the opening-night screening. At his side was the sound track's principal performer: Stan Behrens, 42, a harmonica player and former chauffeur who had driven Dixon to the Grammys a year before.

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