The names of Willie Dixon and Chess Records are more or less synonymous. Yet the two albums that provide the bulk of the material here were cut for different labels, ‘Willie’s Blues’ from 1959 being his first solo release.
When brothers Leonard and Phil Chess founded their eponymous Chicago record label in the early Fifties, one of the first acts they signed, slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, introduced them to Dixon. He would become instrumental in the label’s success in a variety of roles.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1915, William James Dixon had arrived in Chicago in 1936 after a spell of imprisonment. At 250 pounds and six feet tall he was not a man to be messed with, but he channelled his aggression into boxing and, as well as becoming a Golden Gloves champion, was briefly Joe Louis’ sparring partner.
Having quit the sport after an argument with his manager over money, he concentrated on music. He cut his performing teeth with the Five Breezes, with whom he made his recording debut in 1939, and then the Big Three Trio (sic), named after ‘big three’ wartime political leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Many of the songs he wrote in the lifespan of this group between 1946 and 1951 were not recorded but would turn up in his later repertoire.
He had sessioned on stand-up bass for Chess for a couple of years before becoming house producer in 1952. As well as producing, arranging, playing and acting as musical director, Dixon also wrote many enduring songs for the company’s acts. ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ by Muddy Waters was his first landmark composition in 1954, and he followed up with ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’ and ‘I’m Ready’ for the same artist. His first R&B chart-topper came in 1955 with Little Walter’s ‘My Babe’.
By 1957, Willie Dixon was finding it hard to support his family on the wage, apparently a flat $100 a week, he was being paid for his many skills, so decamped for a spell with the rival Cobra label. There he would guide the early careers of Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Magic Sam. He would rejoin the Chess stable when Cobra ran into financial difficulties, but had meanwhile formed his own publishing company, Ghana Music, to safeguard his copyrights.
The late Fifties years prior to the blues revival were hard times to make a living, so in 1959 Willie teamed up with an old friend, pianist and singer Memphis Slim, to play that year’s Newport Folk Festival. They continued to make appearances in coffee houses and folk clubs, playing to a young white audience for the first time.
Born Peter Chatman in 1915, Memphis Slim is best remembered for penning the BB King standard ‘Everyday I Have The Blues’, but on the first album to bear his partner’s name the emphasis is understandably on Willie Dixon’s songs. Dixon also contributes the rough and ready lead vocal.
Some songs are familiar, others less so. Of the former, Dixon gives his own rendition of the Buddy Guy single ‘Sitting And Crying The Blues’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Built For Comfort’, while ‘Youth To You’ is a slightly different version of his greatest hit, ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’.
Memphis Slim contributes two instrumentals, the uptempo ‘Slim’s Thing’ and the more languid ‘Go Easy’, a showcase for his ‘walking’ style. Amazingly, the album was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey in a mere two hours the musicians had between flights in late 1959. This probably accounts for the loose, jam-session style
Our second album is 1960’s ‘Songs of Memphis Slim And “Wee Willie” Dixon’, the first of two recorded for Folkways. We add to this four bonus tracks from the second, the live ‘At The Village Gate’. These performances were more intimate duo affairs, with the legendary Pete Seeger sitting in on banjo on the penultimate ‘Stewball’.
Willie and Slim played the UK in 1960 and returned to Europe two years later as part of the First American Folk Blues festival with T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and others. They were so well received that Slim made a permanent move to Paris in 1962 and would remain there until his death in 1988.
Dixon, who earned further fame and royalties when the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin incorporated his songs into their repertoire, stayed on the American Folk Blues tour for another three years before forming his own booking agency. He recorded his last session for Chess in 1970.
He published his aptly titled autobiography I Am The Blues in 1989, three years before his death and, in 1994, was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the ‘early influences’ (pre-rock) category. In 2008, he was depicted as Cedric The Entertainer in the fictionalised Chess Records story, Cadillac Records.
Willie Dixon’s life and legacy is enshrined by the Blues Heaven Foundation, at the old Chess studios at 2120 S Michigan Avenue in Chicago. These albums were among his first solo recordings, and should be treasured by all those who love the blues.