Chuck Berry

His Best, Volume 1

His Best, Volume 2

Bo Diddley

His Best

Howlin’ Wolf

His Best

Muddy Waters

His Best, 1947 to 1955

His Best, 1956 to 1964


By Frank Youngwerth

The story goes that in 1964, when the Rolling Stones visited Chicago to record at Chess studios, they were startled to recognize the Chess label’s biggest star, Muddy Waters, helping to load in their gear. On the same visit the band encountered Waters’s producer Willie Dixon, whose behavior similarly belied his already legendary status with blues fans: he tried to sell the group some of his songs.

Merely being a legend had never paid the bills for Dixon, who had to support the 12 children he fathered over the course of two relationships. Already having worked at Chess off and on for more than a decade, he’d gradually expanded his job description from session musician to staff songwriter, producer, arranger, and talent scout.

Back then Dixon probably never considered whether the fruits of his daily studio toil would endure beyond their jukebox life span. But six new compilations of the best of Waters and three other great singer-guitarists he worked with not only form the core of the Chess label’s 50th-anniversary reissue series but also emphasize Dixon’s seminal influence on the course of popular music over the last half century.

Dixon participated in nearly everything Chuck Berry cut for Chess up through 1960, and the importance of these sides alone to rock history can hardly be overestimated. They’ve showed up again and again, whole and in fragments, in the work of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. Bob Dylan has acknowledged that “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” one of his pivotal songs, is based on Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” Even the genre-bending Velvet Underground interspersed the odd Berry standard with stuff like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” in early live sets. And the Sex Pistols’ stripped-down punk onslaught owes much–via the mid-70s New York punk scene, aka the “Too Much Junkie Business” era–to the driving style Berry pioneered at Chess.

Unlike other successful rock and blues acts at Chess, the enormously talented Berry never needed Willie Dixon–or anybody else–to write hits for him. Dixon did write and produce regularly for Berry’s early idol, Waters, which eventually led to Berry recording four of Dixon’s songs, beginning in 1959. But Berry’s talent came with an ego to match, so Dixon’s contributions to his work are perhaps the toughest to pin down.

In his 1987 autobiography, Berry deigned to discuss Dixon as the bassist on his first two sessions at Chess. Somewhat bitterly he recalled the circumstances of recording “Maybellene,” his hit debut: “Willie, stout as he was, was a sight to behold slapping his ax to the tempo of a country-western song he really seemed to have little confidence in.”

In his own 1989 autobiography, I Am the Blues, Dixon directly disputed that notion (“We had so much confidence in ‘Maybellene'”) and offered an involved tale of the song’s evolution. Apparently Berry had impressed Dixon and label owners Leonard and Phil Chess when he first auditioned the tune, a revamp of Bob Wills’s “Ida Red” he was calling “Ida May.” But the committee felt it needed some improvement and sent Berry home to Saint Louis to work on it.

“I knew Chuck probably got angry because things weren’t really going as he thought they should,” Dixon recalled. “I think Chuck had to go down and sell blood to the blood bank to get money to get back to St. Louis.” But Berry returned to Chicago a few weeks later with a killer rewrite of the “motorvatin'” car song that would speed up the charts to establish rock’s artistic and commercial viability.

The work-hungry Dixon trailed Berry out of the studio and onto the road–“Me and Lafayette Leake, Harold Ashby, and Al Duncan were the first road band Chuck Berry had,” he wrote. Considering the primary influence of Berry’s Chess recordings on bands, Dixon’s instrumental contributions should be regarded as more than mere backup; on the classic “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry’s celebrated guitar actually seems a little hesitant at points, but Dixon never fails to strut out on bass, holding the performance together.

It may just be a coincidence that the bulk of Berry’s reputation rests on sessions that included Dixon (who plays on 28 of the 40 tracks on the two best-of volumes), while little else in Berry’s discography ever receives comparable acclaim. But more likely Berry’s just too vain to disclose what the other great rocker at Chess, Bo Diddley, forthrightly admitted in the biography Living Legend: “Willie was a great influence on me, an’ he helped me a lot in the studio an’ stuff. He was always there. He was like a father, you know.”

Dixon played on Diddley’s first session (resulting in one of the most influential double-sided R & B singles ever, “Bo Diddley/I’m a Man”) and more to follow. He also wrote Diddley’s hits “Pretty Thing” (whose title pluralized gave a great overlooked British Invasion band its name) and “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” (covered by the great 60s Chicago garage band the Shadows of Knight). But his efforts on behalf of Diddley and Berry extended beyond the studio.

Dixon played a role undoubtedly crucial to the astonishing productivity and success of the Chess label–that of trusted intermediary between the white, nonmusical, exploitative Chess brothers and their roster of talented, temperamental, exploited black artists and sidemen. Dixon had been plugging away as a blues musician himself since the late 30s, so he related well to his fellow players. But he had achieved success by writing and producing hits for others, beginning in early 1954 with Muddy Waters’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” so he could also understand his bosses’ commercial motivations. Dixon even ended up starting two labels of his own in the 60s and 70s, Spoonful and Yambo, though he blew a chance to record the pre-Motown Jackson 5.

In 1955, both of Chess’s future best-sellers, Berry and Diddley, came knocking at the label’s door, toting demos. By then, the brothers had begun to rely on the opinions and expertise of Dixon, their proven hit-maker, when deciding what and whom to record and release. Both artists were on reasonably sound footing with the label from the start, since Dixon was confident that they were good and that their material was ready. Consequently, Berry and Diddley put their best feet forward with the public from the outset. Their popular success was not a fluke.

The two Chess acts Dixon most prominently wrote and produced for, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were too well established in blues, not to mention too old, to cross over to the pop charts like Berry and Diddley. But their records had no less impact on rock. The first two Led Zeppelin albums, of course, were strewn with Dixon compositions, both credited (“You Shook Me,” “I Can’t Quit You, Baby”) and “borrowed” (“Bring It On Home”). The British group’s biggest hit, “Whole Lotta Love,” credited as a band original, elaborated on the 1962 Dixon-penned Waters b-side “You Need Love,” with the slide-guitar vroom appropriated from Diddley’s “Road Runner.” (Eventually Dixon received compensatory payments for both “Bring It On Home” and “Whole Lotta Love,” in separate settlements.)

In 1989 rock critic Dave Marsh called “Whole Lotta Love” “an essence of grunge.” It’s now too much of a cliche to be covered except as a joke, but both PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love” and Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love” conspicuously nod to it, making Nine Inch Nails’ recent cover of the latter a third-generation derivation of Dixon’s tune.

Ironically, near the end of “Whole Lotta Love,” singer Robert Plant wails the titles of two standards Dixon wrote for Howlin’ Wolf, “Shake for Me” and “Back Door Man.” Unlike Waters, Wolf openly resented having to record Dixon’s songs. Sometimes the writer would use reverse psychology when introducing material to his reluctant interpreter, claiming a song was “really meant for Muddy”–Wolf’s only serious rival at Chess.

Wolf’s renditions of Dixon songs like “Spoonful,” “The Red Rooster,” and “I Ain’t Superstitious” (covered by, respectively, Gil Evans, Sam Cooke, and Megadeth, among others) stand as some of the most transcendent blues ever caught on tape. But the singer didn’t care for the lyrics to Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” reportedly protesting, “Man, that’s too old-timey, sound like some old levee camp number.”

In his book Chicago Breakdown, blues scholar Mike Rowe suggests that Dixon adapted “Wang Dang Doodle” from “the old lesbian song ‘The Bull Daggers Ball.'” Wolf’s presumed distaste for lines like “When the fish scent fill the air / There’s snuff juice everywhere” might explain his restrained delivery on the record, although blazing guitar work by Hubert Sumlin (and possibly Freddy King) still makes it a qualified classic. It got a second chance when Dixon produced a version for Koko Taylor; it made the pop chart (unusual for a hard blues record) in 1966 and is still the singer’s signature. And Polly Harvey’s recent cover version brings Dixon’s music into the realm of the current blues-rock revival.

When Dixon, who died in 1992, somewhat boldly titled an album (and later his autobiography) I Am the Blues, nobody raised an eyebrow. He might as well have drawn the statement out to its rightful conclusion and declared himself rock ‘n’ roll as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers/ Willie Dixon photo.