John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Sheer Dazzle of Willie Dixon

The oh-so-underrated blues musician is crazy great on “If You're Mine.”

By - Jul 26th, 2019 12:19 pm

Willie Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1981. Photo by Brian McMillen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Willie Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1981. Photo by Brian McMillen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Like his counterparts in New Orleans, Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint, Willie Dixon was the wizard behind the screen at Chess Records in Chicago. He played bass on Chuck Berry sessions after getting him a deal there. He wrote seminal hits for Muddy Waters and  Howlin’ Wolf. Like Bartholomew, who operated in the shadow of his partner Fats Domino, he was also an artist, unknown to many outside his city.

He was a relentless song-pitcher with a talent for tailoring his creations to fit his larger-than-life artists. After failing to convince Wolf to record “Wang Dang Doodle,” one of the most unhinged songs of all time, he talked Koko Taylor, a singer whose voice one critic compared to a rusty muffler, into recording it. It was an instant success. A couple years later Wolf recorded his house-shaking version.

As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, a cut by Dixon called “If You Were Mine” delivered one of those where-have-you-been-my whole-life moments. I can see how others would want to do his songs. If he had come to Kenosha and pitched this tune to me (which never happened somehow) I would have dropped everything and raced to the studio. It’s an irresistible piece of ear candy, sung with dazzling craziness by Dixon, a man I now admire for his singing as much as his other formidable talents.

I’d like to show you the lyrics but I can’t find them anywhere. I’m not really sure they matter. What does matter is the sound of Dixon’s voice. What I hear when I listen to it is the same thing I get from Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart: Those last two, as great as they are, are impossible to imagine without the existence of Wolf or Dixon. All of them have an unshakeable commitment to an imaginary world much different than the one we’re stuck in. Manic preachers all, they testify to something that exists so far beyond the mundane, there may be no way back once you hear it.

The co-conspirators in this abduction are the skilled musicians at Chess Studios. They play it as close to completely out of control as you can get. The wild swooping sax just before the title literally makes you want to duck. All the mayhem is locked in place by a drummer playing a crisp rock and roll beat on the snare, and while the piano and guitar don’t play much, every note is perfect.

The crowning touch is the perfectly arranged and sweetly sung backing vocals. Dixon started his career (after boxing for a living) in the 40’s with a vocal trio called The Big Three — he knew from harmony. He had to be the guy behind the groovy backing vocals on Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown.” This music is alive and dangerous, like all great rock and roll.

In the end “If You Were Mine” stands as a celebration of its own unruly self. I suppose just being alive in Chicago in the early 60’s with the means and the talent to rise above everyday struggles might also have contributed the joyous mood.

Willie Dixon, a man who made so much of the British Invasion and all that followed possible, had to fight to get paid. He created the Blues Heaven Foundation to assist less fortunate artists after doing battle with some who borrowed a little too freely from his catalog. When Led Zeppelin somehow left his name off “Whole Lotta Love,” a zillion seller that clearly stole from his song “You Need Love,”  sung by Muddy Waters, he sued and won. That alone would probably have made him secure for the rest of his life. There are 1,043 views of “If You’re Mine” on Youtube. I hope this little piece will bump it up a notch or two.

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