Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Willie Dixon
My sister’s been sleeping in these days – she didn’t get a job this summer and she’s been hanging around the house all day. So I haven’t been able to sneak in and see what she has in her record collection. So today I have a dusty, forgotten album from my own closet, one that I had to reach way in the back to locate.
It’s Peace? by Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon, and it came out in 1971. Now Dixon is one of the all-time great American songwriters – he penned such blues classics as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Evil,” “Spoonful,” “Back Door Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “My Babe,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and many more. As performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, these songs put Chicago and Chess Records on the map in the 1950s and influenced thousands of young rockers in the 1960s.
Willie Dixon’s fingerprint on rock and roll is indisputable. Not only did he work with seminal rockers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but songs by Dixon were covered by bands like the Rolling Stones, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix (and stolen by Led Zeppelin). But while he is considered one of the all-time great songwriters, as a performer he’s not that great. He can carry a tune and he has a passable sing-shout style appropriate for blues, but when guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are in the same room a singer like Dixon doesn’t have a chance.
So we get to Peace? which was recorded by Dixon for his own label, Yambo, in the early 1970s. By this time Chess had gone into decline as a label and in fact it was sold in 1969 to General Recorded Tape (GRT). The classic blues artists were having a hell of a time getting attention with their albums but people like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were doing OK on the revival tour circuit. Dixon thought it would be cool to get all timely and write songs that had some social significance for the time.
Good idea, but that means the music would have a relatively short shelf life. “Peace” is an agreeable shuffle and it’s still fairly listenable today because its lyrics are broadly written: “Peace is what I’m tryin’ to get/Peace I haven’t found it yet/Peace all the world needs/A peace for you, a peace for me.” And with its sweet female chorus and fat horn section, this is a long way from the Wolf’s electric Chicago blues.
“It’s In The News” gets more topical, name-dropping Richard Nixon and Chiang Kai-shek to tell the story of Nixon’s reaching out to China with his so-called “ping pong diplomacy.” The song is a mess; Dixon attempts to interpret world events in a down-home language, punctuating his verses with the chorus “It’s in the news/Everybody in the world got some kinda blues.” And that’s the song message – it comes off about as profound and deep as the local loudmouth down at the corner bar.
“Suffering Son Of A Gun” is a welcome break from the peppy horns-and-chick-backup-singers arrangements, a slower blues about friends with the disease “they used to call it the T.B./Now they call it cancer of the lungs.” Because he can drop his voice into a lower register for this song, Dixon’s singing – and talk singing – is more appropriate. The horns come back for “You Don’t Make Sense or Peace” and by this point you begin to suspect Willie’s just putting new lyrics to his old tunes. This one used to be “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”
“Blues You Can’t Lose” is the album’s best moment: Dixon talks over a smooth blues backing, addressing the day’s race issues. His singing is also expressive, I get the impression he took this song’s message to heart. On this song, as on all the others, Dixon is backed by a band he calls the “Chicago All Stars.” Look closer, that’s Chess legend Lafayette Leake on piano, Phil Upchurch and Joe Young on guitars, and Walter “Shakey” Horton on harmonica. “If I Could See” closes the album and it’s a story song made stronger because it has a more timeless feel. A pretty good song, although the background singers seem superfluous and it ends abruptly to bring the album to a cold stop.
Willie Dixon continued to perform regularly and record sporadically, by the 1980s he was devoting much of his time to Blues Heaven Foundation. Dixon created the foundation to preserve the legacy of blues artists and to help surviving performers and writers get properly recognized – and paid – for their work. He was inspired, of course, by his lawsuit against Led Zeppelin for lifting entire lyrical passages from one his songs for “Whole Lotta Love.” Dixon won that lawsuit and was paid and credited for his contribution to the song.
Willie Dixon died in 1992; he’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy Award winner and one of the giants of American music.