Willie Dixon, maybe the single most influential of bluesmen, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the first day of July 1915. A composer, record producer, arranger, bass player, recording artist, session musician, talent scout bandleader, he did more to shape post-war Chicago Blues than any other, except Muddy Waters.
Willie wrote Muddy’s hits Hoochie Coochie Man and I Just Want To Make Love To You as well as hits for many others including Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Rice Miller and Koko Taylor. Led Zeppelin, Cream and The Doors are among the rock bands to benefit from the compositions of Willie Dixon.
Willie Dixon died in Burbank, California on January 29 1992.
I met and photographed Willie Dixon in 1964 when he was kind enough to give me this interview, which was first [and last] published in the Big Bear newspaper of June 1970.
“Well, I used to be a fighter. At the same time, why I was doing spirituals with a spirituals quartet. I used to hand around the gymnasium quite a bit, and guys used to come in playing music, playing the guitars and singing. One of them was Baby Doo Caston; I stood around singing bass with him so much that one night he decided that, if I would go out with him, why, we could make money.
After singing bass, he built me a little tin can with one string on it. Then, in 1939, I was playing at the place of a fellow named Jim Martin with the tin can, and I kept asking him about it, and he bought me a bass fiddle.
Well, I wanted to play bass so bad that it wasn’t a hard thing to do. At this time I had a unit called the Five Freeze; after that I had a group called the Four Jumps of Five; then after four or five years we recorded as the Big Three Trio; we were together for eight or nine years.
All the time I’ve written tunes for everybody else, so I thought I’d write a few for myself; it looks like everybody likes them, so well they take them away from me, so I just go along and let them have them.
“I played bass on several sessions of Chuck Berry’s, same thing with Bo Diddley when he first came to town. I made a lot of things with Muddy Waters.
“I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, way down South, cotton country. I been hearing the blues all my life.
In the Southern states, it’s a funny thing about it, but early in the morning you hear the blues, and it makes you feel right at home, regardless to where you are when you’re able to express yourself with the blues. Sometimes you used to get up early in the morning, and you’d hear a guy way, way across the fields, singing some old corn song.
It sounds good to you; it’s real quiet, you know, and you hear the guy singing about what he think about, probably thinking about leaving there. And you hear him way away, singing a song something like this [Willie sings].
Early in the morning, those things sound real good, you know; early in the morning and late in the evening; I mean like you’ve done a hard day’s work.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s the moans and groans in these things that has pity in them to a certain extent. Sometimes you used to hear a guy just humming and moaning a little.
I mean, guys that do this sort of thing, it’s because they are thinking. You see, when you’ve been in a poverty-stricken place for a long time, then you can think about the consolation of just being where you can relax.
That’s one of the things I like about over here; I feel so loose, I feel free, you know. There’s a whole lot of difference between being relaxed and not relaxed; there’s a whole lot of difference between acting and not acting.
I don’t have to act here, I just be my natural self. If I see a pretty girl, I want to say something, to her, I speak. ‘Hello baby, how you doing?’ It don’t make no difference whether she respond or not.
“When you’re out there on the stage and being able to tell somebody some of the things that you experienced, then sometimes it might touch some of them, and when it touch them, you know it, because you can see the emotions in them. I think it’s a greater show from the stage to see the audience than it is for the audience to see the show.
I can just pick out the people in the audience the song is hitting. I’ve even seen people with pimples break out on them.
You see the music moving somebody; they don’t have to say anything, it’s part of a person’s life, and some of them turn red, like you know.
You know when you’re moving somebody; they don’t have to say nothing; you know it anyway. This is a very emotional country and we really appreciate the audience and the way they accept us.
“America is just like anywhere else: when a person’s at home, it is hard to move somebody; not nearly so hard to move somebody away from home. People at home, they see you and know you; people in other places, you’re new to them.
“I’ve heard many bluesmen way back home – Roosevelt Sykes, Victoria Spivey, Blind Lemon Jefferson. I’ve always liked to play an old corn song, play an old country blues, with all the feeling that goes with it. When it comes to the natural blues, there’s many guys can speak their own language in this. You don’t understand it unless it touches part of you.”