Virtually no one has been more important in the blues than Willie Dixon, the bass player, songwriter and producer extraordinaire whose work was the lifeblood of the music emanating from Chicago during its golden years in the ‘50s.
The native of Vicksburg, Miss., was irreplaceable when he left us, robbing the world of a beloved talent whose work behind the scenes helped build Chess Records into the powerhouse it became. His songs turned Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others into household names before influencing the rock world in such a profound way that covers of his tunes still reverberate around the globe on a daily basis.
An intelligent, well-spoken man despite modest upbringings, Willie was a true caretaker and custodian whose love for the music – a labor that’s spanned far longer than the dynamic 76 years he spent on this earth. And, fortunately, he left a handpicked a successor who’s worked quietly behind the scenes, tending the bountiful fields he planted to assure the fruits he left behind would continue to grow.
That man is his grandson, Alex Dixon, and although you might not be very familiar with him, he’s truly a torchbearer for all seasons.
In 1975, Alex was raised from infancy by Willie and his grandmother Marie in the epicenter of the blues on Chicago’s South Side: the Dixon family home in the 7600 block of South Throop, where he was surrounded constantly by a virtual who’s who of the biggest names in the business when they dropped by for a visit or go to Willie’s famous studio, the Blues Factory, studio a few blocks away on South Racine.
His start in the family business began early, and his involvement in the blues music industry has never waned.
Although he no longer holds the position, Alex was the longtime vice president of Blues Heaven Foundation — the non-profit started by Willie in ’84 to promote the music and provide scholarships, royalty recovery advice and emergency assistance to musicians in dire positions. The organization has been based out of the former Chess headquarters south of the Loop since the mid-’90s and is now led by Willie’s youngest daughter, Alex’s aunt Jackie.
His responsibilities shifted about four years ago — after the passing of his grandmother – when he became the chief officer in Hoochie Coochie Music, which watches over Willie’s extensive songwriting catalog. Now splitting his time between California and Chicago, he’s founder of Dixon Landing Music, a label, publishing house and management firm he launched in the San Francisco Bay area to boost the careers of younger musicians.
At the time of this interview, Alex was on the verge of launching his most recent project: an album entitled The Real McCoy and issued under the band name Vintage Dixon, which marks the recording debut of Chicago vocalist Lewis “Big Lew” Powell, who powers through a collection of seven fresh tunes and four penned by his grandfather, all of which come with classic Windy City feel.
“I chose the title because I’m definitely trying to carrying forward the traditions I learned from all those older guys in Chicago,” says Dixon, a large, pleasant man who bears a strong family resemblance to Willie and can dwarf an upright bass much like his grandfather used to do.
“I’m 44, but people always talk to me like I’m so much older because I know all these old guys,” he says. “I tell ‘em that it’s because I was raised by my grandfather and hung out with his friends. I’d know all these 70- or 80-year-old guys when I was younger.
“I got lucky to see all that stuff!”
When he was old enough, he even sold merchandise for Willie at some of his shows.
“Everybody was hustlin’ back then,” he remembers. “People will come up to me today and say: ‘I’ve got a picture of you at the Chicago Blues Fest at Navy Pier, and you was sellin’ your grandfather’s records out in the crowd.’
“But that’s what we were doin’ – selling records and T-shirts out of the back of the van, makin’ sure we got the old man’s music out there!”
Alex was just six years old in 1981 when the Rolling Stones were booked to perform at Soldier Field and made that famous unannounced appearance at the Checkerboard Lounge with Muddy Waters that captures them at their blues best and is still available on DVD today.
During that stay, they also made another spontaneous stop — at the Dixon residence.
Alex probably was too young to remember, but as Mick Jagger recounted to him last year when the band returned to the Windy City during another world tour, the band arrived in limousines in all their rock-star glory and created such a commotion that his grandmother literally kicked them out of the house.
Like his grandfather, the younger Dixon is a talented songwriter as well as bassist. But as a child, he was better known for his prowess on the keys – so much so, in fact, that he played a vital role in establishing what would evolve into the international Blues in the Schools program that brings the music to children around the globe today.
As a very young child, he took piano lessons from Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, Willie’s former partner in the Big Three Trio and the founding father of the Minneapolis blues scene. He was also the man responsible for convincing Willie – a Chicago Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing champion in the ‘30s – to abandon the ring for a career in music.
Other lessons came from an equally impressive cast of keyboard giants, including his uncle Butch, who played in Willie’s Chicago Blues Allstars for years, Lafayette Leake, a mainstay in Muddy Waters’ band, and Eurreal “Little Brother” Montgomery, one of the most important musicians in his grandfather’s life.
Willie Dixon was only seven years old and growing up in Vicksburg, when he became captivated in the blues after seeing Little Brother play for the first time. A native of New Orleans, Montgomery subsequently relocated to Chicago first in the late ‘20s and then permanently in the ‘40s, where he helped mold the Windy City style of keyboard mastery.
Little Brother became a major influence to Alex, too, expanding his lessons beyond the blues he was learning from the others and schooling him in other stylings he’d mastered decades earlier in the Big Easy.
“He and his wife Janice would often come by the house and play boogie woogie/ragtime music and ballads,” Alex recalls fondly today. “He taught me how to play 44 Blues (a song first recorded by Roosevelt Sykes in 1929) using all black keys in F#. I remember that it was very difficult.
“All those guys taught me lessons at our house. Then, when we moved to California, ‘Uncle’ Baby Doo and his wife Josephine would come visit us, teach me songs from the Big Three Trio and help me get my left hand together.”
Alex was just six years old when he and Willie launched the pilot project that would eventually evolve into Blues in the Schools. As Willie narrated in the classroom, he’d accompany him, playing in different styles to provide a musical context as his grandfather described the music’s history.
“I’d play 44 Blues – I wound up switching it over to an easier key,” Alex recalls. “And How Long, Seventh Son and others. And I’d sing, too.”
Dixon also vividly remembers conversations with Robert Jr. Lockwood, who would regale him with stories about his stepfather, Robert Johnson – something that causes him a little embarrassment today in retrospect.
“I used to think he was crazy,” Alex says. “I asked him: ‘Are you serious?’ “He said: ‘Yeah. He was my stepfather. He was datin’ my mom!’ I thought it was the craziest thing because the movie Crossroads had just come out – and he actually met Robert Johnson!”
Dozens of world-famous guitarists passed through the home, but – according to Dixon – just one stood out from the crowd.
People always ask me: ‘Who was the greatest guitar player you ever heard?’” Alex says, “and I always tell ‘em: ‘Johnny Shines.’ He played some things I’d never seen on that 12-string guitar before and never since.
“I only saw Muddy Waters twice — once at Chicago Fest and another time when I was in the front row of his funeral with my grandfather. I kept asking him: ‘Why are all these TV cameras and monitors outside for people to watch the funeral?
“’Was he famous?
“He said: ‘Yeah, he was pretty big, and he was a friend of mine.’”
By the time he was ten, Alex was playing to much broader audiences than schoolkids, occasionally accompanying his grandfather in the Chicago Blues Allstars entourage and getting to share the stage with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Koko Taylor, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
“Sometimes, I was so nervous that I didn’t realize I was playin’ with certain people,” he admits.
Alex was a regular member of the band for the final four years of Willie’s life, which ended in 1992 due to complications of diabetes, which had already forced the amputation of one of his legs. They also co-wrote 40 songs during that period, one of which is “Study War No More,” a stand-out tune on Willie’s final CD, Hidden Charms, which won a Grammy in 1989.
“We moved to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles in 1984, and he came to me and said: ‘This record company (Capitol) wants me to do one more album. Help me get it together,’” Alex recalls. “And the studio we used for The Real McCoy – EastWest Studios in Hollywood — was the same one where they recorded Hidden Charms.
“We had some fun on that project – and, ironically, Sugar Blue, who’s on the new album, was on that one, too!”
After Willie’s death, Alex played around Chicago occasionally with Aunt Shirley and guitarist Lefty Dizz, but eventually spent seven years as a police officer in L.A., while still remaining active with and Blues in the Schools and family business in the Windy City.
He founded Dixon Landing in 2009, the same year he released his first CD, The Vintage Room, a blues-rock collaboration billed as the Blues Experience with legendary soul-blues guitarist Cash McCall, who also co-produced Hidden Charms.
Alex planned on featuring McCall on another CD a few years ago, but the project never materialized because Cash was diagnosed with lung cancer just prior to his scheduled West Coast trip for an album songwriting session. His final appearance on disc occurred last year with the release of Going Back Home with longtime friend Benny Turner. But he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the praise it received, succumbing to the disease three months after its release in January.
Although he’s always preferred to remain out of the spotlight throughout his own career on stage, Alex does have one album out under the Alex Dixon Band name. A second 2009 release entitled Rising from the Bushes, he’s featured on keys in a lineup that included West Coast favorite and close friend Alan Mirikitani – better known as B.B. Chung King – on lead guitar, Marcy Levy – aka Marcella Detroit, the co-author of “Lay Down Sally” with Eric Clapton – on vocals, veteran keyboard players Alvino Bennett (Mighty Joe Young/Guitar Shorty) and James Gadson (Marvin Gaye/Bobby Womack) and bassist Gerald Johnson (Steve Miller).
“It was a good album, and we had fun doin’ it,” he says. “But then I got busy seein’ that we could keep our (the Dixon family’s) songs and everything.”
And that job is no easy task.
As chief officer in Hoochie Coochie Music, he’s responsible for safeguarding his grandfather’s legacy, which includes rights to such classic songs as “Help Me,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “I’m Ready,” “My Babe,” “Spoonful,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “The Seventh Son” and hundreds of others – material that’s produced major hits for the Stones, Cream and others through the decades.
It’s a fulltime job unto itself, and a birthright that the family is eager to protect – especially considering the battles their forefather fought during his lifetime.
Willie Dixon became an outspoken ambassador for the blues community, an advocate for all artists when it came to securing all of the royalties they deserved for their music – and did so after one of the biggest rock bands of the ‘60s built their careers internationally by ripping him off.
He spent 18 years in court to reclaim his rights after Led Zeppelin blatantly stole elements of two of his tunes — “Bring It on Home” and “You Need Love” — and copyrighted them as the song “Whole Lotta Love,” which soared to the No. 4 spot on U.S. charts in 1969 and was the band’s only Top 10 American hit in their history.
Willie finally received an undisclosed, out-of-court settlement in 1987. Today, Alex is the point man as the family protects their interests regarding how the material is used and being sure that they reacquire rights to the songs once licensing agreements with labels expire.
Still, however, Dixon remained a musician at heart and the itch to continue that branch of the family legacy remained strong. And Vintage Dixon has become his latest outlet, showcasing the influences and lessons he learned in childhood and producing a powerful reminder that the classic Windy City blues sound is just as viable today as it was in the ‘50s.
“I wanted to produce something that speaks to folks who understand how it was back then without being too commercial and play all the stuff I did when I was a youngster,” he notes. “It’s hard to find bass players, and I winded up playing upright bass on the project myself.”
And while the sight of him standing beside the instrument instantly brings back memories of Willie, he says: “Apparently, no one had ever seen me playing it before.
“But I tuned that bass of his so-o-o many times and, of course, learned how to play it. It was an electric upright that the Grateful Dead gave him in the ‘80s. He couldn’t really play it well because the strings were kinda weird, so he gave it to me when I was a kid.
“That’s how I started playin’.”
Like his professors on the keyboards, you can’t argue with his instructors on bass: not only his grandfather, but Gerald Johnson, his Blues Experience bandmate, who is best known for the bottom he laid down on the Steve Miller hit, “The Joker,” in addition a career that’s included work with Dave Mason, Steven Stills, Les Dudek and The Pointer Sisters.
But the true star of The Real McCoy is Big Lew Powell, a powerful baritone in his own right with a delivery that’s similar, but somewhat rougher and more powerful than Willie, and albeit a little less sweet. Dixon met him for a first time at the 2015 Chicago Blues Festival when Alex’s band was on the bill and Powell was holding down the drums for vocalist Nellie “Tiger” Travis, a one-time protégé of Koko Taylor who’s become an extended member of the Dixon family.
“They were doin’ a Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters tribute, and I was singin’ on main stage with Sugar Blue, Cash and all those old guys,” Alex remembers. “My daughter, Leila, always sings with me, and she wanted to go sing with Nellie, too.
“I met Big Lew playin’ drums. He wasn’t singin’ at all. But he did catch my grandmother’s attention one time when he sang at our Foundation. I remember she would always tell me: ‘There’s a guy down there…he’s big – and he can sing really well.
“’You need to work with him, Alex.’
“I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You tell me every week about different guys who can sing all the time.’
“She said: ‘No, no! You really need to talk to this guy!’
“I did, and found out that we had similar passions for blues. I always wanted to do a traditional blues album, and a lot of guys went: ‘Oh, that’s tired. It’s been done before. Let’s do somethin’ different.’ Not Big Lew.
“My family’s been known for getting young musicians exposure, and I wanted to get his name out there. I told him: ‘When we play our shows with my band, I’ll sing a few songs and you sing the rest – like a Memphis Slim-Willie Dixon thing.’
“He said: ‘Yeah! Let’s do that!’
“We started workin’ together, and I started writin’ songs for him,” Dixon says. “For the first song we recorded, ‘Under the Sun,’ I used a ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ beat to give him mojo, to get him relaxed, make him comfortable, and after that, we were off!”
Their backing band on the album is a mix of second- and third-generation blues talent, including Sugar Blue, who sent in his parts digitally from his new home base in Shanghai, and Steve Bell, the son of Carey and a friend since childhood, alternating on harmonica.
“The hardest part of being a producer with Sugar was that we couldn’t decide which one of the awesome tracks he sent us we should use,” Dixon says. “They were all so great and so unique!”
Rounding out the lineup are Bennett on drums and an all-star roster of guitarists, including Melvin Taylor, Rico McFarland, Gino Matteo and former International Blues Challenge winner Joey Delgado — all of whom remain deep in the pocket like it was done in the good old days. Daughter Leila and Maori sound weaver Whaia adding backing vocals.
But Dixon isn’t content to rest on his laurels. He’s already making plans for a project involving Taylor, who was once the hottest and tastiest young guitar player in Chicago in the ‘70s. A major presence on the jazz and blues scenes in Washington, D.C., and Virginia today, he’s about to relocate to the West Coast and there’s an album in the offing. After that, another project with Big Lew is on the horizon, too.