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Willie Dixon

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment looks at the life and music of blues master Willie Dixon.

Willie Dixon

The blues, music born in the Mississippi Delta out of African tradition, became one of the roots of modern popular music, both rock 'n' roll and country music.

Willie Dixon was one of the most significant songwriters in the history of the blues. He died of heart failure Jan. 29 in California. He was 76.

Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on July 1, 1915, one of 14 children. He was a gospel singer and a boxer before he moved to Chicago. There, he met Phil and Leonard Chess and began a long association with their Chess label.

As musical director for Chess in the 1950s, he produced and recorded with legends such as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Dixon played bass, but began writing songs for the artists.

His classics include I Just Want to Make Love to You, Little Red Rooster, Spoonful, I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man and Back Door Man.

Those songs later became building blocks for the 1960s blues revival and were recorded by such rock 'n' roll artists as the Rolling Stones, Cream and Jeff Beck.

Dixon also spent several years with the Cobra label, where he worked with guitarists Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.

Dixon had a long-standing legal dispute with Led Zeppelin, which used significant parts of his You Need Love for their 1969 hit Whole Lotta Love. Dixon and the band settled the dispute in 1987.

Because of the case, Dixon founded the Blue Heaven Foundation in 1982 to help blues artists and their heirs to recover copyrights and royalties.

In 1988, MCA released a box set of 36 of Dixon songs from the Chess years.

In 1989, at the age of 73, Dixon finally won his first Grammy for his Hidden Charms album in the best traditional blues recording category. He mounted the stage with the aid of a cane and received a standing ovation.

"I've been in the music business for about 50 years," Dixon said backstage. "It's about time, don't you think?"

Later that year, he and Bo Diddley were inducted in the Rock Walk in Los Angeles, a gallery honoring musicians who have contributed to the evolution of rock music. And he received the first National Blues Treasure Award.

In describing the blues, Dixon once said, "Blues is just a slice of life."


Source: Rolling Stone, Times files.

Discussion questions

1. What is the only original music form developed in this country?

2. Name 10 contemporary and 10 non-contemporary black musicians and their art form.

3. Research the life and Florida roots of singer Ray Charles.