"I am the back door man
 I am the back door man
    Well, the men don't know
          But the little girls understand"
                                            -"Back Door Man"
       Born in 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Willie Dixon first settled in the Windy City in 1936.  He was one of only seven of his mother's fourteen children to survive birth.  While growing up Vicksburg he penned many poems in a poembook he kept with him.  Converting some into songs and hustling them to hillbilly/country & western groups aroud town, Dixon began his music career.  Later he had the words to a poem, "The Signifying Monkey," printed up on paper strips and he sold them in Vicksburg.  His first formal musical experience came when he sang bass with a local gospel group called the Union Jubilee Singers.  Gaining such popularity, the Jubilee Singers were able to tour in Mississippi outside the Vicksburg city limits and even broadcast a fifteen minute radio show every Friday from the eigth floor of the Vicksburg Hotel during the early and middle 1930s.  Dixon also had a liking for boxing, as in his late teens his rock-solid 200 pound body seriously considered a career as a boxer.  This turned his eyes northward, toward his eventual home at Chess Records.  After winning the Illinios heavyweight Golden Glove championship(novice division) and sparring with Joe Louis, he turned pro.  His pro career abrutly ended when he was suspended for a brawl in the boxing commissioner's office.

       It was Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston who persuaded Dixon to abandon boxing for a career in music.  Caston provided Dixon with his first instrument, a one string, tin-can bass.  Jumping  around between different music groups in the Chicago area, Dixon finally settled with Bernardo Dennis on guitar and Caston on piano to form the Big Three Trio in 1946. Ollie Crawford, a cohort of Caston's from the Rhythm Rascals, replaced Caston a year later.  The Big Three, as they were known, toured the midwestern network where they found moderate success.  In his travels prior to forming the trio, Dixon had gained studio experience with Lester Melrose, a record company owner now with Okeh records.  This relationship initially atrracted the Chess brothers, who checked him out during jam sessions at their club, Macamba.  In November of 1948, Dixon played on a Robert Nighthawk session, his first at Chess, still known as Aristocrat then.  Recording as his schedule permitted, he became a full time employee in 1951 producing, arranging, running the studio band and playing bass on "everybody's everything."  Leonard Chess described him as "my right arm." (Snowden, 81)

       His first listed session for Chess Records, came in 1952 on Jimmy Roger's "Back Door Friend."  With the success of Muddy Water's "Hoochie Coochie Man" in January of 1954, Leonard Chess was convinced of the comercial possibility of Dixon's work.  Dixon was promoted to Artistic Director and began taking part in all recording sessions at Chess Records.  1955 brought Little Walker's "My Babe," the first Dixon song to top the R&B charts.  His contributions were not limited to the blues sphere, as he did the first session for the El-Rays(later known as the Dells) in 1954, backing them with the Willie Dixon Orchestra.  With "Maybellene," also in 1955, Dixon began a long standing relationship with Chuck Berry in the studio, lasting virtually uniteruptred until the early 60s.  During the 1950s he also backed such phenomenal acts as Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, and in 1959 he performed with Memphis Slimm in New York City.  Modern Chicago blues owes him such classics as "My Babe," "Wang Dang Doodle," and "Little Red Rooster."

       Dixon saw quite the unique side of Leonard Chess.  Being in the position he was, Dixon was able to see Chess not just as a man assisting bluesmen of the South to record, but a bussinessman.  Having its own publishing wing, Arc Music, Chess Records was able to take advantage of its powers.  Frequently Chess added names on copyrights in order to retain more of the royalties.  Dixon comments on Leonard, "Frankly, Leonard was a maneuverer.  He was dealing with people who didn't know anything about the record business.  I call it swindling but most people call it smart business when you can take advantage of someone who doesn't know better.  I didn't know anything about copyrights laws or anything like that." (Snowden, 99)  Dixon also relates stories of how Chess would allow musicians to have a few drinks, sometimes to the point of being drunk, before negotiating contracts with them.  Of course, as Dixon says, "there weren't any law that was forcing him to do all the things legitimate with black people."  (Snowden, 201)  Regardless, Dixon served an important role in the development of Chess Records, providing many artists with some of their most popular songs.  Later in his career, Dixon helped to bring blues festivals to Europe, giving the blues an new international audience and ultimately spreading blues around the world.

Watch out for the Back Door Man!
Hear Willie play that bass!
Willie at his best!
Dixon is Crazy For My Baby!

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Page Composed by: Ben Stewart - Spring 1998
e-mail: ben_d_stewart@hotmail.com