The great blues songwriter Willie Dixon, who poet John Sinclair rightly dubbed “the bard of Vicksburg” after his Mississippi birthplace, was a key player in the development of Chicago electric blues.
He played bass on hundreds of classic sessions with Muddy Waters and others, worked as a talent scout for the Cobra and Chess labels, promoted shows, arranged tunes and his list of talents goes on. But Dixon’s songwriting remains his strongest marker in American music history.
If you think you’ve never heard his work, you’re wrong. This literal blues giant of a man, who was born July 1, 1915 and died in January 1992, authored songs that have become part of the firmament of both blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
In fact, given the A-list of classic rock bands that have covered Dixon’s compositions, it’s fair to proclaim him an important figure in sculpting the direction of ’60s rock. Here are 10 of the greatest rock performances of Dixon’s songs:
10. “Back Door Man”: Originally released by the gravel voiced blues demi-god Howlin’ Wolf as the B-side to another Dixon song, Wolf’s party anthem “Wang Dang Doodle,” the definitive rock version of “Back Door Man” was recorded by the Doors on their 1967 debut, with Gibson legend Robbie Krieger wielding his ’67 SG Standard through its chugging rhythm and wildly slithering slide break.
9. “Spoonful”: A hit for Wolf in 1960, this number was reprised by another ’60s SG wizard, Eric Clapton, with the band Cream. Jack Bruce’s croon is considerably smoother on 1966’s Fresh Cream than Wolf’s nasty cackle, but it’s no less powerful. On stage Cream’s improvisations sometimes stretched performances of “Spoonful” past the 15-minute mark.
8. “Bring It On Home”: The tremendous harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded this tune for Chess Records in 1963 and filled it with enough vibe that Led Zeppelin was inspired to cut their own chops-heavy version for 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. Ferocious live renditions packed with Jimmy Page’s Les Paul gusto can be heard on the DVD Led Zeppelin in the 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert and on the CD set How The West Was Won.
7. “You Shook Me”: Both Page and Zeppelin and the Jeff Beck Group took up the challenge of this Muddy Waters recording from 1962. Beck, whose oxblood finished Les Paul has been reproduced by the Gibson Custom Shop, laid into the number on 1968’s Truth, while it appeared on Zeppelin’s 1969 debut. The versions are quite similar, but perhaps given Beck’s and Page’s common roots in early British blues that’s not so surprising.
6. “You'll Be Mine”: Wolf and Waters were Dixon’s favorite performers of his songs, and label owner Leonard Chess was always looking for material for his two leading bluesmen. Wolf cut this tune in 1961, and while John Hammond and Dr. Feelgood recorded solid versions, the definitive modern-era take is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ripping rendition on 1985’s Soul To Soul.
5. “Killing Floor”: This 1964 Howlin’ Wolf single was a hard-bitten threat to a cheating woman, with a stinging riff by early Gibson Les Paul Gold Top hero Hubert Sumlin. Led Zeppelin, the Electric Flag, Albert King, Eric Clapton and many others have recorded versions live and in the studio, but the definitive post-Chess readings belong to Jimi Hendrix. Jimi had a long history with the song. It was his spotlight number when he toured with Curtis Knight in 1965 and ’66. The first time Jimi sat in with Cream he called “Killing Floor,” and it was a staple of the Experience’s early set lists — performed with an urgency that even exceeds the Wolf recording. Live takes from Monterey Pop, Royal Albert Hall, Paris and other concerts are a testimonial to Jimi’s — and Wolf’s and Dixon’s — enduring power.
4. “I Ain't Superstitious”: Beck also seized this 1961 Wolf classic and made it his own on his Group’s Truth. Rod Stewart turns in a striking vocal performance, but it’s Beck’s sonic shredding on wah-wah that transforms the song into something beyond genre. His performance was ranked at 86 in the Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All Time.”
3. “I'm Ready”: The Muddy Waters version, which was an early hit for him in 1954, was already used in a Viagra commercial by the time Aerosmith knocked it out of the ballpark on their 2004 blues tribute album Honkin’ On Bobo, with Gibson-playing kingpin Joe Perry leading the charge with plenty of high-energy six-string crunch.
2. “Little Red Rooster”: Howlin’ Wolf and Sam Cooke both recorded this Dixon number about fowl goings on before the Rolling Stones paid Dixon and Wolf homage by cutting it at Chess in Chicago in 1964, with Brian Jones laying down some glorious slide. There’s also a great live version of the Stones’ performing the tune on 1977’s Love You Live.
1. “You Can't Judge a Book By the Cover”: If not for Chess Records and Willie Dixon, there might never have been the Rolling Stones. Keith, Mick and Brian were all inspired by the artists and songs the label recorded, and often revisited the latter in the Stones’ early years. Case in point: the Stones’ cut this song in 1962, right on the heels of Bo Diddley’s original. Today that demo recording is available as well as a live Stones performance of the number on the BBC.