Willie Dixon's grave

Photograph of Willie Dixon's fresh grave by Josť Luis Villegas

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Willie Dixon

I've got 29 ways

To make it to my baby's door.

If she need me bad,

I can find about two or three more.

-- Willie Dixon

By John Orr

Say ``thank you'' to Willie Dixon. We owe him a lot.

Some, such as Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry, owe Willie Dixon a chunk of nearly every dime they ever made, and an earful of nearly every ovation they ever received.

If there'd been no Willie Dixon, Chess Records wouldn't have been as mighty a force as it was in shaping the great post-war blues explosion, and in helping to build the foundation of rock 'n' roll. And a lot of Led Zepplin fans would still have their full hearing.

``Willie Dixon is the man who changed the style of the blues in Chicago,'' slide guitarist Johnny Shines told Guitar Player magazine. ``As a songwriter and producer, that man is a genius. Yes, sir. You want a hit song, go to Willie Dixon. Play it like he say play it, and sing it like he say sing it, and you damn near got a hit.''

Most of us white baby boomers found out about the blues via Willie Dixon, whether we knew it at the time or not.

We heard Cream's strut-and-shout cover of ``Spoonful'' on ``Wheels of Fire,'' but it was written for Howlin' Wolf, who had a blues hit with it in 1960. ``Little Red Rooster'' was perfect for Mick Jagger and the Stones, but it was another song written for Wolf, who recorded it in 1961. Led Zepplin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant performed monster covers of ``You Need Love'' and ``You Shook Me,'' but Dixon had written them for Muddy Waters, who recorded them in 1962.

Willie Dixon taught bass players how to rock 'n' roll. Listen to him on Chuck Berry's Chess recordings of ``Rock and Roll Music,'' ``Reelin' and Rockin''' and many others. He took big band music and Mississippi blues and melded them into something new, opening the door for the people at Motown and elsewhere who would take it even further.

Since World War II, when he was briefly jailed as a conscientious objector, and later went to work at Chess, his influence among musicians, producers and record companies has been profound, driven by his love for ``strong brains and broad minds'' and a deep desire to see black people and blues musicians treated better in a nation that often gave short shrift to both.

``The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits,'' Dixon said. ``It's better keeping the roots alive because it means better fruits from now on. The blues will always be, because the blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.''

Dixon's people told Jose Luis Villegas in late January that he and I could come down to L.A. and see Willie. He'd just gone in the hospital, they said, but we could see him as soon as he got out. In a week or so.

Willie Dixon died Jan. 29, 1992. The San Jose Mercury News sent Jose to Alsip, Illinois, where on March 28, 1992, in that cold winter wind, grass had yet to grow over the turned earth of Willie Dixon's grave.

Oh, the dogs begin to bark and the hounds begin to howl
Oh, the dogs being to bark, hound begin to howl
Oh, watch out, strange kin people,
'Cause the little red rooster's on the prowl

If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home
If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home
There's been no peace in the barnyard since the litte red rooster been gone

-- Willie Dixon