THE HISTORY OF ROCK N ROLL – 1959 PART THREE

Posted: February 4, 2015 in MUSIC, Rock n Roll 1959 Part 3
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by Robert Seoane

THE REAL FUTURE OF ROCK N ROLL: LEGENDARY BLUES ARTISTS SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON I AND II – HOWLIN’ WOLF – WILLIE DIXON AND THEIR INFLUENCE ON CLASSIC ROCK LEGENDS THE ROLLING STONES – ERIC CLAPTON – THE DOORS – LED ZEPPELIN – AEROSMITH AND MORE

 

CHANGING MUSICAL TASTES

Two compilation albums were released in 1959, one by Sonny Boy Williamson and the other by Howlin’ Wolf, that pointed the direction to the real future of rock ‘n’ roll. Every other artist that had a hit in the Billboard Top Forty that year, every Number One single and album, had nothing on them. Decades from now, these charted pop hits would be listened to as a nostalgic trip to another era, but these blues musicians who didn’t chart any pop hits, barely made any money on their success and were relegated to the shadows, deemed lesser men because of the color of their skin, have made music that has remained vital and as beautiful to listen to today in 2015 as they were all those years ago.

1959 was a year of contrasts between the music of yesterday and the music of tomorrow.

Most emerging artists of the late Fifties and early Sixties were in the impending danger of extinction by 1964, when the Beatles were to arrive in the US with a sound that blew away everything from its musical path. Slowly but surely, most of the Fifties pop and rock ‘n’ roll stars would be doomed to suffer a sudden and fiery decline into obscurity after that fateful day on February 9 when the “Fab Four” made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show to 70 million American viewers, at the time a historic record. The only few artists to survive the onslaught of new product from across the pond were older, established superstars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. In fact, Martin knocked The Beatles’ seven-week debut chart topper “I Want To Hold Your Hand” off the Number One slot in the Spring of 1964 with his old-fashioned but still popular-among-the-parents hit, “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Sinatra still managed to top the charts or enter the Top Ten during the mid-Sixties with releases such as “That’s Life” and “Strangers In The Night”. The only other unstoppable force was Motown, delivering an assortment of R&B artists into the Top Forty that paralleled in popularity and quality of the music of the British Invasion. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll was thriving in the Sixties for those who had their own sound. Anything that even remotely smacked of the previous decade was forgotten.

 

THE FUTURE OF ROCK & ROLL

In 1959, rock ‘n’ roll was mostly comprised of either doo-wop groups, who weren’t really singing rock ‘n’ roll, or pop stars who sang songs with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. All the real rock ‘n’ roll stars had been sidelined. With Elvis in the Army, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper dead, Jerry Lee Lewis’ recording career destroyed for marrying his thirteen year old cousin and Little Richard renouncing the rock ‘n’ roll life for the ministry, the only true rock ‘n’ rollers left were Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy. Everyone else in 1959, although some were immensely talented, was made into pop stars by an industry desperately searching for the new Elvis. Neil Sedaka was singing about having a different girl every calendar year and wishing his sixteen-year-old girlfriend a happy birthday. Frankie Avalon was singing to the planet Venus to grant him his girlfriend’s love. The Platters were reviving an old standard, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, and turning it into a huge hit by making it sound contemporary, and the biggest hit of 1959 wasn’t even a rock ‘n’ roll song. It was a song from a 1930s German play called “The Threepenny Opera” that had been re-hauled into a dynamic jazz number called “Mack The Knife”, its definitive version sung by another up and coming pop star, Bobby Darin. “MTK” spent the last two and a half months of the Fifties in the Number One position, twelve weeks in a row, a sure sign that the rock ‘n’ roll music that had combusted so spontaneously five years earlier was flaming out.

But blues music was a different story. The blues are always only about the blues, usually as a lament for something that was lost, whether it be a lover or a job. The lyrics were often repeated in pairs, and the lament was usually backed by amazing musicianship where each note sounded like it came from the essence of their soul. It wasn’t just the dexterity of the playing but the persistence of the beat that fueled these songs and brought the listener into its musical ride and, if properly appreciated, irresistibly persuaded you to groove along.

Looking back at 1959 now, it’s obvious that the path rock ‘n’ roll was taking was a bleached, tamped down version of its original firepower. All the teen pop idols that surfaced during this period may have had talent and some of their songs were indeed very good, but it wasn’t the future. While the record labels were grooming them, promoting them and serving them to the pubescent teen market as The Next Big Thing, the real future of rock ‘n’ roll remained under the radar. Blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley to name a handful, were playing and composing music that would greatly influence legendary rock groups and artists that include The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, The Police and Sting.

The following is a collection of these amazing blues musicians’ songs that the megastars of 20th Century rock played, loved and emulated.

Sonny Boy Williamson made a lasting impact on rock ‘n’ roll as well as on the rock giants who admired his music. But in actuality, there were two musicians who called themselves Sonny Boy Williamson. Not because they were related at all, but because the second SBW took it upon himself to take the name. Blues purists refer to them today as I and II.

 

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON I

John Lee Curtis Williamson, born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1914, was the original Sonny Boy. Christened the father of modern blues harp, Williamson was the first to use the harmonica as a lead instrument for the blues. In 1934 he settled in Chicago and as a result, pioneered Chicago blues. At age 23 in 1937, he recorded his first single for Bluebird Records, called “Good Morning, Schoolgirl”. With the simple accompaniment of a harmonica and guitar, the song became popular among the black community and established his reputation as a master harp player right from the start.

A Texas bluesman by the name of Smokey Hogg released his own version of “Good Morning Schoolgirl”, adding a piano to the tune. His version made it into Billboard’s R&B chart at Number Five. Other blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells with Buddy Guy recorded their own versions of the song. For the most part, each of those recordings used similar, sparse instrumentation, but no white artist had ever touched the song until the British Yardbirds with Eric Clapton released it as a single in the UK in 1964. The Yardbirds’ version is a well-produced, well-played version revved up to the rock ‘n’ roll sound of the day, with more than a passing resemblance to the style of the Beatles.

Once the Yardbirds released the single, then a flood of white artists began to record it over the ensuing decades, including Paul Butterfield, the Grateful Dead, Jonny Lang, Huey Lewis and the News, Van Morrison, Paul Rodgers with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ten Years After, The Derek Trucks Band, Johnny Winter, and The Allman Brothers Band. Like so many other blues compositions redone by these and other legendary artists, they turned the blues into dynamic rock music.

SBW I continued to cut records for the next ten years, all of them just as well received as the previous release. In 1947, “Shake The Boogie” made it into Billboard’s “Race” chart (that was the name they called music from African Americans before Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues) and reached Number Four.

Sometime in the early 1940s, another musician by the name of Alex “Rice” Miller out of Mississippi started to also call himself Sonny Boy Williamson. The original Williamson was aware of this but did nothing, perhaps because SBW II confined himself to playing in the Mississippi region and didn’t release any recordings during SBW I’s lifetime. SBW I did confront SBW II personally once but not much was settled.

“Big Sonny Boy [Miller] chased Little Sonny Boy [Williamson] away from there. He couldn’t play with Rice. Rice Miller could play Sonny Boy’s stuff better than he could play it!” –Robert Lockwood, guitarist who witnessed the confrontation

On June 1, 1948, SBW I had completed a performance at the Plantation Club and was walking home. A block and a half away from the club, he unwittingly found himself in the middle of a robbery and took a bullet that killed him. He was 37 years old.

 

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II

“Those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do”. – Sonny Boy Williamson II

Alex “Rice” Miller, nicknamed so because of his penchant for rice and milk as a child, was born in 1912, two years before John Williamson. Miller claimed to be born in 1899, perhaps as part of his conspiracy to own the original Sonny Boy’s name. His gravestone says he was born in 1908, but Dr. David Evans, professor of music at the University of Memphis, claimed to have found census records evidence claiming Miller to be eight years old in the year 1920.

Miller’s name change came about in 1941 when the sponsor of The King Biscuit radio show in which he performed regularly started to inexplicably refer to him as Sonny Boy Williamson.

His career began back in the 1930s when he toured and played in his home state of Mississippi and Arkansas. During his travels, he met and played with two other blues greats that would form the foundation of Mississippi blues as it’s known today, Elmore James and Robert Johnson. It was a tightly knit group; his sister was even married to Howlin’ Wolf. During those years, SBW II developed his onstage persona and entertained the audience with his banter and his abilities on the harmonica. Miller was indeed a master bluesman and incredibly talented, able to play harmonica by inserting it halfway into his mouth and not using his hands.

“Sonny Boy Williamson is the Jimi Hendrix of the Blues Harp.” John Mayall

“If you are gonna play a note, play the hell out of that goddamn note! You can take one note and upset a house. Play that damn note; don’t let the note play you.”- Sonny Boy Williamson II to Little Sonny in Detroit MI in 1955 (as reported in Living Blues Issue #207)

In 1941, SBW II started playing for “King Biscuit Time” a radio show out of Helena, Arkansas, where he garnered local fame for his performances. As his reputation grew and indeed became a superior musician over the original SBW I, Miller had no recording contract and continued to play locally. It wasn’t until SBW I’s murder in 1948 that Miller’s star began to ascend. He signed with Trumpet Records in 1951, calling himself “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson”. By 1953, he was part of Elmore James’ band, and after the label folded in 1955, Miller’s contract was taken by the label’s creditors and sold to Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess. It was then that Miller began recording his own compositions. His records made it to the United Kingdom and ignited a blues craze. There, in contrast to his home country, he became a huge star and hero to many young, future musicians like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

SBW II’s first LP, “Down & Out Blues”, was released in 1959. Consisting of songs he had recorded during that decade, the record’s grooves contained the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and legendary songwriter Willie Dixon backed him up on many of these recordings.

In direct contrast to the happy, bright, white young faces adorning pop releases of the day, the “Down & Out Blues” album cover showed a black homeless man laying down on the street, conveying a gritty reality nowhere to be found in 1959 rock ‘n’ roll.

DON’T START ME TO TALKIN’ – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Don’t Start Me To Talkin” was the new Sonny Boy’s first single and his biggest hit, climbing up to Number Three in Billboard’s R&B chart after its September 1955 release. It’s a standard blues song, essentially a blueprint of how the blues should be played and sung, and a quality recording. Over the years it was re-recorded and played by Dion, the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, The Doobie Brothers and The New York Dolls to name a few. Each version by these artists shows a tremendous love and appreciation for the song, sung with an energy and exuberance that betrays the joy felt in all these musicians’ souls for the blues.


I DON’T KNOW – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

The second track on “Down & Out Blues” was originally released as the flip side of the “Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes” 45rpm record released on February 6, 1957. It’s another classic blues song filled with wit and carried on by a wicked beat. The lyrics also reaffirm Miller’s constant need to tell everyone he is Sonny Boy Williamson.

“At eleven forty-five the phone began to ring, I heard someone say Sonny Boy and I know that was my name, who call you? I don`t know, I don`t know, but I`m trying to get in touch my baby to find out why she disappoint me so.” – “I Don’t Know” – Sonny Boy Williamson

Every track of the album is a classic and more than worth a listen, with lyrics that had nothing to do with innocent love. Quite the contrary, each tune had a different way of conveying the jealousy and trials of falling in love and was filled with humorous and original perspectives that just couldn’t be found in 1959 mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.

FATTENIN’ FROGS FOR SNAKES – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

The song that opens Side Two is about a repentant man who uses the analogy of feeding amphibians to reptiles with the bad choices he made in his lifetime.

“Whoa man, nineteen and fifty-seven, I’ve got to correct all of my mistakes, I’m tellin’ my friends includin’ my wife and everybody else, not fattenin’ no more frogs for snakes” – Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes – Sonny Boy Williamson

YOUR FUNERAL AND MY TRIAL – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Your Funeral and My Trial”, recorded in March 1958, was a song about jealousy with lyrics that once again put a spin on the green-eyed monster by implying a violent end for his girlfriend if he continues her philandering ways.

Please come home to your daddy, and explain yourself to me, because I and you are man and wife, tryin’ to start a family, I’m beggin’ you baby, cut out that off the wall jive, If you can’t treat me no better, it gotta be your funeral and my trial.” – Your Funeral and My Trial – Sonny Boy Williamson


Sonny Boy Williamson didn’t just influence rock ‘n’ roll musically, he also inspired legendary artists with his lyrics as well. When John Lennon was with the Beatles, he wrote several songs that dealt with jealousy and veiled threats of violence in retribution for disloyalty much like Dixon’s “Your Funeral and My Trial” in theme. As the years progressed, Lennon’s lyrics also became more honest and even a little confessional.

“That boy took my love away, Oh, he’ll regret it someday, but this boy wants you back again.” – This Boy – The Beatles

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl or I won’t know where I am, you better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand little girl, catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” – Run For Your Life – The Beatles

“I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can…” Getting Better – The Beatles

The remaining songs on SBW II’s album, such as “Cross My Heart”, don’t let up in quality and feeling. In 2007, the album was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

SBW II continued releasing singles between 1960 and 1965, each of them classic blues songs that were aurally devoured by the future leaders of Sixties rock. Other notable songs include “Little Village”, a recording prefaced with hilariously obscene banter between Sonny Boy and his producer Leonard Chess.


EYESIGHT TO THE BLIND – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Eyesight To The Blind” recorded by SBW II in 1951, was subsequently recorded by The Who and was the only song in their groundbreaking 1969 album “Tommy” that had been written by another artist.


In 1975, the Who released “Tommy” as a film where Eric Clapton was showcased as a preacher performing SBW II’s “Eyesight to the Blind” in a bizarre scene filmed in St. Andrews Church in Southsea, England, where paraplegics were being taken to touch a large statue of Marilyn Monroe in the hopes of being “saved”, while a crazed priest (Arthur Brown) baptizes everyone with pills and liquor. That’s rock ‘n’ roll for ya.

NINE BELOW ZERO – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

Yet another song with lyrics that put a humorous slant on being left by a woman, this time in the dead of winter, is “Nine Below Zero”. The title of the song was later taken to be used by the rock group of the same name.

“Yeah, ain’t that a pity people, ain’t that a cryin’ shame, ain’t that a pity, I declare it’s a cryin’ shame, she wait till it got nine below zero, and put me down for another man.” – Nine Below Zero – Sonny Boy Williamson

SBW II toured Europe in the early Sixties when the United Kingdom was still in the clutches of a blues craze and even recorded with the Yardbirds and the Animals. Recorded live at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey on December 8, 1963, SBW II and the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar created a classic blues album.


That same month of December in 1963, Williamson recorded eleven live tracks with the Animals that were subsequently released over the years among various rock compilation albums. One of the highlights is their rendition of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe”.


Sonny Boy Williamson II’s penchant for lying and twisting the truth backfired on him when he returned to the States because none of his friends believed he went to Europe, although he had completely changed his wardrobe style due to British influence, opting for a suit complete with bowler hat and umbrella.

HELP ME – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Help Me”, released in 1963 and climbing up to Number 23 in the Billboard R&B chart, is the only song SBW II released that he didn’t write the music for, taking the melody from a rock ‘n’ roll song that had been released in 1960 called “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs. Willie Dixon is also credited along with SBW II in the song.


CHECKIN’ UP ON MY BABY – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Checkin’ Up On My Baby” has been called “the most accomplished masterpiece of the postwar blues” and is a favorite of the Rolling Stones, having been performed more than once by Mick Jagger and a long list of others.


Upon SBW II’s return from Europe, he resumed playing on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show. On May 25, 1965, he was late for work, a very unusual occurrence for him. Fellow musician Peck Curtis had been waiting for his arrival along with his backup musicians and decided to go to his rooming house to see why he was delayed. He found him lifeless on his bed from a heart attack. Alex Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson was 53 years old.

 

HOWLIN’ WOLF

A compilation album was released in 1959 that contained a decade’s worth of blues recordings by an artist who essentially was one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll.

Chester Arthur Burnett, named after the 21st President of the United States Chester A. Arthur and better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf, nicknamed ‘Wolf’ as a child by his grandfather for his brusque behavior, was a blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910.

This collection of a dozen songs that made up the contents of the compilation album “Moanin’At Midnight” and released in August of 1959, captured the essence of blues, and served as an aural barometer of how far the current rock ‘n’ roll sound had drifted from its roots. The rock ‘n’ roll songs of 1959 had the beat and used the proper instrumentation, but one by one, those popular artists of the time all sold out. As Madison Avenue exploited the genre and The Establishment was successfully taming and molding the beast called rock ‘n’ roll into an acceptable product that would be palatable and safe for the whole family, both institutions capitalized on the sound in the same cynical way. They packaged and sold it to a young, eager market after successfully cutting its balls off. The music’s soul and smoldering sexuality had been replaced by ditties with clever lyrics and a rock ‘n’ roll beat.

Chester Burnett had a rough childhood. His mother Gertrude, a street singer who sold gospel songs for a living, disowned him for playing “the devil’s music”. After his parents separated and his father moved away to the Mississippi Delta, little Chester lived with his uncle Will Young, a preacher and strict disciplinarian who was “the meanest man between here and Hell” according to a childhood friend of Burnett’s. Chester ultimately ran away from his mother and his maternal family when he was 13, and walked barefoot eighty-five miles according to him, until he got to his father’s home, who gladly took the young boy in.

Burnett grew up with a keen interest in blues music, especially after his father bought him his first guitar at age 18, and he became personally acquainted with the incredibly talented blues musicians that played in and around the Mississippi Delta where he lived. He met the first great blues star, Charley Patton at around that time. Patton was a major influence in his musical style, as was Sonny Boy Williamson II and other talented Mississippi bluesmen of that region. Patton taught Burnett how to play guitar. Burnett taught himself how to play the harmonica.

Throughout the Thirties, Burnett spent his time performing solo gigs as well as with a variety of Southern blues musicians. In 1941, he was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he resumed his blues career. In 1948, he formed a group called The House Rockers with pianist Bill Johnson, lead guitarist Willie Johnson, and drummer Willie Steele. Other musicians that would join the group were harmonica players James Cotton and Little Junior Parker as well as Ike Turner on piano. A local radio station in Memphis started to broadcast their live performances. At one point, Ike Turner brought Burnett to the attention of Sam Phillips, the man who would discover Elvis. Sam recorded Howlin’ Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service in 1951.

MOANIN’ IN THE MOONLIGHT – HOWLIN’ WOLF

Howlin’ Wolf’s very first recordings with Sam Phillips along with other blues classics are contained in the “Moanin’ In The Moonlight” compilation album. All of the songs in the compilation have an undeniable groove that essentially defined rock ‘n’ roll. Several of these compositions have gone on to be played by the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, the Yardbirds and Cream. It’s ironic that Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon and many other American artists would not be properly recognized in their own country until British rock artists came all the way from across the Atlantic Ocean, to come here and play it for us.

MOANIN’ AT MIDNIGHT – HOWLIN’ WOLF

“Moanin’ At Midnight” opens with his humming and distinctive howling, backed by a plucky guitar and accompanied after a while with his harmonica, blowing out a chugging rhythm that proceeds to flow smoothly through the song. Howlin’ Wolf sings as though he’s being choked; his lower range was more of a growl and it ultimately became his trademark. Although “MAM” was recorded in 1951, it didn’t become an R&B national hit until 1957.

The opening cut from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moaning In The Moonlight” collection was the first song recorded by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service and distributed through Chess Records in 1951. Sam Phillips and the Chess Brothers, Phil, and Leonard, had a contractual agreement to work in conjunction with recording and distributing R&B music.

The B-side to the Chess Records release of “Moanin’…” was “How Many More Years” and the second track on the album. This song is one of a handful of tunes Howlin’ Wolf recorded that has been played many times by the aforementioned rock supergroups of the Sixties.

The next track on the collection was “Smokestack Lightnin’” a song Howlin’ Wolf wrote and has been playing since the early days of the 1930s. It’s one of Howlin’ Wolf’s most famous, having been a staple song during the live concerts of the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Wailers. The song has also been performed and/or recorded by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, John Mayer, Soundgarden, George Thorogood, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival among others.

“We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” – Chester ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett

“Ah-oh, smokestack lightnin’, shinin’, just like gold, why don’t ya hear me cryin’? A-whoo-hooo, oooo whooo… Whoa-oh, tell me, baby, what’s the matter with you? Why don’t ya hear me cryin’? Whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo whooo…” Smokestack Lightnin’ – Howlin’ Wolf

The song was written and recorded in 1956 after Wolf moved to Chicago and signed exclusively to Chess Records.


The Yardbirds were known for being blues purists, and besides “Smokestack Lightnin'” they recorded many other blues compositions including Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin'”(1951) with Jeff Beck on guitar and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man”(1955), where guitarist Jimmy Page uses a violin bow.



Side One of “Moanin’ At The Moonlight” closes with a great song called “All Night Boogie”. It’s a fast bluesy romp with more than a passing similarity to Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”(1954) that shows off the Wolf’s virtuosity on the mouth harp and pre-dated scores of honky-tonk rock ‘n’ roll songs of the Sixties and Seventies.


The other notable song in the album collection is “Evil”, written by Willie Dixon. Dixon played double-bass on this recording, produced in 1954. It’s a classic song for rock ‘n’ roll, singing about the dangers of evil lurking in “your happy home” when you’re not around and the little lady is all alone to fool around with another man. This was just the kind of topic the Establishment frowned upon, even though the song may have had a point. But if the blues and country music were the parents of rock ‘n’ roll, the blues was the genre’s mother, because it instilled in the music its ability to sing from the heart no matter how painful or embarrassing the topic may be.

“You make it to your house, knock on the front door, run ’round to the back; you’ll catch him just before he goes. That’s evil, evil is going on. I have warned you brother, you better watch your happy home.” “Evil” – Howlin’ Wolf


 

WILLIE DIXON

Willie Dixon is the only other blues artist besides Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson I to shape the Chicago blues sound. Dixon sang and played guitar as well as the upright bass, performing on most of Chuck Berry’s releases of the mid-Fifties, but Willie Dixon’s biggest contribution to the history of rock ‘n’ roll was the songs he wrote.

Dixon was an amiable man with a friendly smile and incredibly prolific, writing over five hundred songs during his lifetime, many of them for other artists. Besides writing songs for Howlin’ Wolf such as “Evil”, Dixon has also written, to name just a few, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, popularized by Muddy Waters, Little Walter’s “My Babe”, “Little Red Rooster”, recorded by the Rolling Stones and released as a single in November 1964, and “Spoonful”, recorded by Cream for their landmark rock album “Wheels Of Fire” (1968).


Dixon is aptly considered an essential link between rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, as so many of his compositions have been re-recorded and played live by the likes of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jeff Beck, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith, George Thorogood, The Grateful Dead, Sting, Megadeth, Tom Petty, The Animals, The Kinks, The Yardbirds as well as the group that actually named itself after a blues song and the strongest proponent of the genre, the Rolling Stones.

The Stones had met Willie Dixon and other blues greats in 1962 when the group attended the first American Folk Blues Festival. A manager for the Stones during the early days, Giorgio Gomelsky, recalls that meeting.

“There was Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy [Williamson II] and Willie Dixon, the three of them sitting on this sofa … Willie was just singing and tapping on the back of the chair and Sonny Boy would play the harmonica and they would do new songs. To a degree, that’s why people know those songs and recorded them later. I remember ‘300 Pounds of Joy’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘You Shook Me’ were all songs Willie passed on at that time … Jimmy Page came often, the Yardbirds, [and] Brian Jones.” – Giorgio Gomelsky.

Willie Dixon and all the others were very generous to these young British admirers.

“I left lots of tapes when I was over there [in London … I told] them anybody who wanted to, could go and make a blues song. That’s how the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds got their songs.” – Willie Dixon

What made all theses classic Dixon compositions so appealing to the rock groups that played them was that the tunes allowed their musicianship to shine through. Any type of extended solo could be and has been played during many of Dixon’s most frequently played songs, letting the musician dive deep into the groove of the music, with the ability to play as long as they wanted. The following selection of Willie Dixon songs is sixteen of the most influential songs in rock ‘n’ roll history, as evidenced by their being remade more than once over the decades.

 

WILLIE DIXON AND THE ROLLING STONES

The true blues purist of the Rolling Stones and the main instigator in wanting to play Willie Dixon songs was Brian Jones. Brian was one of the founding members of the group. He gave them their famous name. In the early days, Jones was in charge of booking the band. One day, when he was booking a gig with a club manager over the phone, the manager asked him the name of his group. Jones glanced over to the floor and saw a Muddy Waters record called “Rollin’ Stone”. Jones was so enamored of the blues that at one point he changed his name to Brian James, in honor of his other blues hero, Elmore James.

Besides his contribution to the Stones’ bluesy roots, Jones went on to add unique musical instruments and sounds to their compositions. The sitar-like guitar in “Paint It, Black” is pure Brian Jones. His contributions, however, started to lessen as drugs began to take its toll. On July 3rd, 1969, Brian Jones was discovered motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool. He became a member of the infamous ‘27 club’ along with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, all dying at age 27.

LITTLE RED ROOSTER – HOWLIN’ WOLF

All during the Fifties up until 1963, Willie Dixon worked for Chess Records. He had originally been signed as a recording artist, but he ultimately stayed on as Producer, occasionally playing bass in some of the recordings he produced and acting as the staff songwriter for the label.

After “Moanin’ At The Moonlight” was released, Howlin’ Wolf continued to record Dixon songs such as “Little Red Rooster”..

“I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow ‘for day, keep everything in the farm yard upset in every way. Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl, watch out strange cat people, little red rooster’s on the prowl…” Little Red Rooster – Howlin’ Wolf

“Little Red Rooster” or “The Red Rooster” as it was originally titled, can either be interpreted as a children’s tune about a farm animal or as one of the most phallic songs ever written.

“I wrote it as a barnyard song really, and some people even take it that way!” – Willie Dixon

It’s interesting to note that in the Rolling Stones’ version of the song, Mick Jagger sings “I am a little red rooster” as opposed to its original lyrics “I have a little red rooster”.

DOWN IN THE BOTTOM – WILLIE DIXON

Willie Dixon took portions of the lyrics from an old song recorded by Bumble Bee Smith in 1936 called “Meet Me In The Bottom” and wrote “Down In The Bottom” for Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The song tells the tale of a cheating spouse’s lover who asks for his running shoes before he makes a break for it out the window. Like all Dixon songs, its persistent, catchy beat is a perfect musical bed for all kinds of solo virtuosity from any number of different instruments.

“Well now meet me in the bottom, bring me my running shoes, well now meet me in the bottom, bring me my running shoes, well I’ll come out the window, I won’t have time to lose.” Down In The Bottom – Howlin’ Wolf

The Stones recorded “Down In The Bottom” in 1965 with a decidedly more upbeat.

I JUST WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO YOU – WILLIE DIXON

Willie Dixon’s recordings of his own songs are arguably the best versions of future variations, but every once in a while, another artist comes along and makes a change that turns someone else’s song from a good one to a great one. A perfect example of this is Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” recorded by Jimi Hendrix in 1969. The Hendrix version today remains the definitive one, a classic that Hendrix owns so well, that even Dylan admits Jimi’s version is the superior one.

Muddy Waters was the first artist to record “I Just Want To Make Love To You” in 1954. He played it in the same slow tempo as Dixon’s. It was a major hit in its time, going up to Number Four on the chart Billboard used to label as “Black Singles”, before it was re-named as the R&B chart.

The Rolling Stones turns this blues song into a rock ‘n’ roll song just by speeding it up. They altered the lyrics slightly, releasing it in their debut album “The Rolling Stones”, as it was called in the UK. The record company in the US changed the name of their debut album to connect them to the Beatles as The Next Big Thing, calling it “England’s Newest Hitmakers”. Indeed, The Rolling Stones were always The Beatles’ rival for popularity all during the Sixties.

Seventies rock group Foghat also chose this song to record and put in their self-titled debut album in 1972. The single made it up to Number 83 on the Billboard Hot 100. They recorded it again, this time live, and also released it as a single off their “Foghat Live” album five years later, in 1977. Although the single was edited from an eight-minute track down to three minutes, it managed to do 50 positions better than the original, making it into the Billboard Top Forty at Number 33. Their take on playing this song is truly spectacular.

 

WILLIE DIXON AND ERIC CLAPTON

SPOONFUL – WILLIE DIXON

“It could be a spoonful of coffee, it could be a spoonful of tea, but one little spoon of your precious love, is good enough for me, men lies about that spoonful, some of them dies about that spoonful, some of them cries about that spoonful, but everybody fight about that spoonful.” Spoonful – Howlin’ Wolf


Willie Dixon wrote his most influential songs in 1960 for Howlin’ Wolf to record and “Spoonful” is one of them. Cream introduced it to the rock masses when they released a seventeen-minute version recorded live during the Winterland concert in San Francisco on March 10, 1968. The recording can be found on their classic “Wheels Of Fire” (1968) album. Eric Clapton has played “Spoonful” countless times on stage, in almost every band and solo incarnation he’s appeared.

The studio recording of “Spoonful” was released in Cream’s 1966 debut album “Fresh Cream”(1967) in the UK, but the song was replaced with “I Feel Free” in the US version because the latter had been getting airplay. It was released on a single in the US in 1967, but because the recording was six and a half minutes long, they couldn’t fit it all on one side, so they made the boneheaded decision to fade it out halfway through the instrumental break and begin Side B with the third verse of the song and on through the end. Cream’s “Spoonful” was finally released in its entirety in the US in 1969’s “Best of Cream” compilation album.

GROANIN’ THE BLUES – WILLIE DIXON

Originally recorded by Otis Rush in 1957, Rush delivers a competent delivery of the song. But nothing like the way Clapton plays it. When Eric Clapton plays this song, it sounds as though his guitar should catch fire.

Eric Clapton has had the same affinity when it came to the blues, particularly Willie Dixon, much like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones had, as well as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Clapton has played and recorded many Dixon songs as a solo artist as well as in groups he’s been in, including the Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominoes. On September 13, 1994, Clapton released “From the Cradle” an exquisitely played and recorded collection of Clapton’s favorite blues songs. Three of the sixteen cuts were Willie Dixon songs. “Groanin’ The Blues” majestically closes the album.

 

WILLIE DIXON AND THE DOORS

BACK DOOR MAN – WILLIE DIXON

Released as a single in 1960 by Howlin’ Wolf, the theme for this song followed the same vein as that of themes which the establishment frowned upon. A “back door man” is a man who is having an affair with a married woman. Frankie Avalon in 1959 couldn’t very sell sing a thing like that, but fast forward eight years later and you’ll hear The Doors sing their own version from their eponymous debut classic rock album in 1967, remaking it to sound unmistakably Doors-y for the young market of the Sixties. Howlin’ Wolf was a decade ahead of his time.

“When everybody’s sound asleep, I’m somewhere making my midnight creep. Yes, in the morning, the rooster crow. Something tell me, I got to go. I am a back door man, I am a back door man. Well, the men don’t know but little girls understand” – Back Door Man – Howlin’ Wolf.

“Hey, all you people that trying to sleep, I’m out to make it with my midnight dream, yeah. ‘Coz I’m a back door man. The men don’t know but the little girls understand.” Back Door Man – The Doors


This was the song Led Zeppelin refers to in the lyrics of “Whole Lotta Love” when Robert Plant sings “I wanna be your back door man”.

 

WILLIE DIXON AND LED ZEPPELIN

BRING IT ON HOME – WILLIE DIXON

Sonny Boy Williamson recorded this Dixon song on January 11, 1963, in Chicago, Illinois. Famous session musician Matt “Guitar” Murphy played on that recording. But, like other great blues singles in its day, it went unheard until 1966 when Chess finally released it in a compilation album series called “The Real Folk Blues”.

Led Zeppelin recorded a deliberate homage to Williamson’s “Bring It On Home” as the intro and outro of their own original composition, also titled “Bring It On Home’. Because Led Zeppelin did not credit Williamson or Dixon on their album Led Zeppelin II, they were sued. Ultimately, they settled out of court. Led Zeppelin never meant to take credit for the Dixon/Williamson composition.

“The thing with ‘Bring It On Home,’ there’s only a tiny bit taken from Sonny Boy Williamson’s version and we threw that in as a tribute to him. People say, ‘Oh, Bring It On Home is stolen.’ Well, there’s only a little bit in the song that relates to anything that had gone before it…” – Jimmy Page

I CAN’T QUIT YOU BABY – WILLIE DIXON

Led Zeppelin dug their hands into the Willie Dixon bag of chestnuts more than once. One of the Rolling Stones earliest managers, Giorgio Gomelsky, attests to seeing Jimmy Page among other rock star/fans like Brian Jones listening to Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson writing songs on the spot and giving Page and Jones permission to use them.

Willie Dixon wrote “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” for Otis Rush, recording and releasing it in the summer of 1956. Rush gives an impassioned performance, belting out a sustained wail as soon as he opens his mouth. Robert Plant also does the song justice. “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” is a slow 12 bar blues standard that epitomizes the style, having been copied in various forms many times over the years. It allows the musicians to play extended solos between verses. Otis Rush’s version managed to crack Billboard’s R&B Top Ten at Number Six.

Although Willie Dixon’s original recording can go head to head against Led Zeppelin’s version, particularly because of its extended piano solo, Led Zeppelin’s version of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You, Baby”, from their eponymous debut album released on January 12, 1969, is undeniably a masterpiece. Jimmy Page’s magical manipulation of his guitar, Plant’s unique, soul-shearing voice and John Bonham’s assured rock steady beat brings out all the potential this composition has to offer. Led Zeppelin essentially showed Willie Dixon, Otis Rush and the rest of the world how to play it.

YOU SHOOK ME – EARL HOOKER, WILLIE DIXON & J.B. LENOIR

The music of this song comes from a recording that had already been released. “Blue Guitar” is a blues instrumental played by Earl Hooker and released in 1961 through Chief Records. Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess liked the music and approached Chief Records owner/producer Mel London and worked out a record deal where he would be able to use the song as the musical track for a Muddy Waters song. Willie Dixon wrote the lyrics with blues guitarist and singer-songwriter J.B. Lenoir. As usual, his songs leaned towards tales of extra-marital affairs.

“You know you shook me baby, you shook me all night long (2×), Oh you kept on shakin’ me darlin’, oh you messed up my happy home.” You Shook Me – Willie Dixon


Muddy Waters record it on June 27, 1962. It didn’t reach the national record charts as so many other blues songs also had done, but Leonard Chess liked it. He recorded three more Muddy Waters songs using three different Earl Hooker instrumentals immediately after.

Besides this being a Jimmy Page favorite as a teenager, British rock guitarist Jeff Beck loved it as an adolescent as well. In May 1968, Beck recorded “You Shook Me” with his band, the Jeff Beck Group and accompanied by lead vocalist Rod Stewart, and with Ronnie Wood on bass for their album “Truth”. Only two and a half minutes long, it takes off into an electric guitar whirlwind at the end that makes you wish the solo was only beginning before the song abruptly ends. John Paul Jones contributes organ on this recording, as he also does on the Led Zeppelin track.

Led Zeppelin took the song and blew it up, extending it to over six minutes and slowing down the beat a bit from Waters’ original twelve-bar blues arrangement. Highlights in the recording abound, starting with Plant’s falling vocal on “long”, then going on to glorious sounds for the next several minutes and ending with a duel between Plant’s vocal and Page’s guitar. Plant wins the match when he takes control of the song for a moment, yodeling “all” with purpose, before the whole deceptively tight, post-psychedelic rock-blues piece comes to a crashing end.

In this case, Willie Dixon’s only contribution to Led Zeppelin’s song was the phrase ‘you shook me’, which Plant sings throughout, except for one extra verse with lyrics taken from another blues tune, this one by Robert Johnson, called “Stones In My Passway”. Together, the lyrics are basically only comprised of the following:

“You know you shook me, you shook me all night long (2x), you shook me so hard, baby, baby, baby, please come home, I have a bird that whistles and I have birds that sing, I have a bird that whistles and I have birds that sing, I have a baby, won’t do nothing, buy a diamond ring.” You Shook Me – Led Zeppelin

Mixing both lyrics over a groove derived from Earl Hooker’s “Blue Guitar” makes Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me” an electrically charged tribute to all great blues artists. This song and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” were two of three songs from their eponymous debut album not written by them, the third song being Anne Bredon’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”.

The Zeps builds the song in three twelve-bar segments so they can showcase each member’s instrumental skills. In this case, it was John Paul Jones on organ, Robert Plant on harmonica, then bringing it home with Page’s guitar.

YOU NEED LOVE – WILLIE DIXON

Willie Dixon’s influence on Led Zeppelin was all over the British group’s second album as well, particularly in their mega smash hit “Whole Lotta Love” (1970). Muddy Waters recorded “You Need Love” eight years earlier in 1962 and upon listening it, a distinct similarity between Waters’ repetition of “you need love” and Plant’s “got a whole lotta love” can be discerned. The courts thought so too. Dixon, at long last realizing all he lost for giving away his songs, sued Led Zeppelin in 1985 for copyright infringement and the chagrined group settled out of court.

In 1966, The Small Faces released their debut album with a song called “You Need Loving” as one of the tracks. Also derived from Water’s “You Need Love”, it’s obvious that Plant had heard this recording before, because Plant’s phrasing of the opening lines of “Whole Lotta Love” sounds very similar to Steve Marriott’s vocal in “You Need Loving”. Towards the end of the song, Marriott lets out a familiar yell after the music comes to an abrupt halt, that is also mimicked by Plant when the music stops similarly in “WLL”. Despite the similarities between the Small Faces and Willie Dixon’s song, Dixon only sued Led Zeppelin.


 

WILLIE DIXON AND AEROSMITH

I’M READY – WILLIE DIXON

Muddy Waters had a big hit with this song in 1954, having gone up to Number Four in the national R&B chart. Willie Dixon is playing bass on the recording and Little Walter wails on harmonica. Waters re-recorded this song for his 1978 album “I’m Ready” which won him a Grammy that year.

Aerosmith turned this blues standard into a full-fledged rocker when they recorded it for their “Honkin’ On Bobo” album in 2004. That’s Steve Tyler on harmonica, keeping up with the best of them.

 

DIDDY WAH DIDDY – WILLIE DIXON & BO DIDDLEY

Elias McDaniel, known professionally as Bo Diddley, co-wrote this song with Willie Dixon and recorded it in 1956, released through Chess’ subsidiary, Checker Records. The song, recorded on November 10, 1955, has the distinction of having the doo-wop group The Moonglows as backing vocals, happily repeating “diddy-wop”. The Moonglows had a 1955 hit called “Sincerely”, a classic doo-wop song, and the laughable but equally classic “Ten Commandments of Love”.

The song is about a mythical town named Diddy Wah Diddy. The term was one of many made up towns that African-Americans from the South, mostly Florida, referred to as Diddy Wah Diddy, Heaven, West Hell or Beluthahatchie. They spoke of these places tongue-in-cheek as if they really existed; utopian towns where food was always readily available and happiness were plentiful.

Like all of Willie Dixon’s songs, they were simple, witty and double-edged, singing about something seemingly innocent on the surface but delightfully wicked under further inspection. In this recording, Bo Diddley abandons his trademark ‘chug-a-lug’ guitar playing for a slower tempo but usually succeeds in making the listener move to the groove.

“She loves her man, just is a pity, crazy ’bout my gal in Diddy Wah Diddy. Ain’t no town, and it ain’t no city but oh, how they love in Diddy Wah Diddy.” Diddy Wah Diddy – Bo Diddley

Tom Petty, one of the few remaining rock legends still active today in 2015, kicks ass with his rendition of Diddy Wah Diddy, which shouldn’t be surprising since Tom Petty kicks ass on everything he plays.

Even the Boss has been known to play the song live in many of his concerts.

YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER – WILLIE DIXON

Dixon’s ability to come up with songs had a lot to do with what he sang about. In “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”, he compares things that can’t be compared, with lyrics that are really a sly rebuke of racism.

“You can’t judge a fish by lookin’ in the pond, you can’t judge right from looking at the wrong, you can’t judge one by looking at the other, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover…Oh, can’t you see, oh, you can’t judge me? I may look like a farmer but I’m a lover… Can’t judge a book by looking at the cover…” “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” – Willie Dixon

The Rolling Stones cut a demo of this song in late 1962. Eric Clapton has been playing this since he was with the Yardbirds. Even The Monkees played the song, performing it during many of their live venues.

Bo Diddley recorded this Willie Dixon song in 1962. It went up to Number 21 in the R&B chart and Number 48 in the Hot 100.

The Strypes released a terrific video, worthy of the song for the track off their 2012 EP debut, “Young, Gifted and Blue”.

“YCJABBTC” also succeeds with a country beat too. This was proven in 1992 courtesy of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. It’s not surprising that the blues mix well with country & western music. Back in the 19th Century, common folk would entertain themselves at night by gathering together and bringing their musical instruments native to their land. The men who had been taken by force from West Africa to work as slaves brought their banjo, and the Irish, considered barely a notch above the African slaves, brought their fiddle. Together, they developed a style that laid the foundation for country & western music.

SEVENTH SON – WILLIE DIXON

Like so many other Willie Dixie songs, “Seventh Son” has also been covered by a slew of artists, including Bill Haley & His Comets, Johnny Rivers, Tom Jones, John Mellencamp, George Thorogood and Sting.

Willie Mabon recorded it on June 1, 1955 with Dixon accompanying on bass. It was released through Chess Records that October. Lyrics vary depending on who sings the song. Even Dixon has changed his own lyrics when performing the song live. As in all great Dixon songs, it leaves plenty of room between verses to showcase some great musicianship.



I AIN’T SUPERSTITIOUS – WILLIE DIXON

Willie Dixon wrote “I Ain’t Superstitious”, a song about a superstitious man claiming not to be, for Howlin’ Wolf to record in 1961. Many groups have tackled this truly great song, such as the Grateful Dead, Yardbirds and the heavy metal band Megadeth. Each of them has managed to interpret the song in their own unique way, so listening to the same composition by each artist is almost like listening to a different tune each time.

“Well, I ain’t superstitious, black cat just cross my trail, well, I ain’t superstitious, oh, the black cat just cross my trail, don’t sweep me with no broom, I might get put in jail. When my right hand itches, I gets money for sure, when my right hand itches, I gets money for sure, but when my left eye jump, somebody got to go.” “I Ain’t Superstitious” – Willie Dixon

Dixon’s version is a mid-tempo blues song, as laid back as a stroll around the park.

Howlin’ Wolf’s original version has a stop time beat to the recording.

The most recognized remake of this song was recorded by Jeff Beck for his 1968 debut album, “Truth” by The Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart as lead singer.



Carlos Santana teams up with Johnny Lang in his 2010 album “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time”. Santana plays his guitar with a fuzzier, stronger sound not usual of his style, and Johnny Lang vocal interpretation is deeply steeped in blues.

WANG DANG DOODLE – WILLIE DIXON

“Wang Dang Doodle” was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960 and released through Chess Records in 1961, but it wasn’t until 1965 that the song entered legendary status. Chicago blues singer Koko Taylor recorded the song in her strong throaty voice and gave it new life. It climbed up to Number 13 in the R&B chart and managed to make it to Number 58 in the Pop chart.




“Wang Dang Doodle meant a good time, especially if the guy came in from the South. A wang dang meant having a ball and a lot of dancing, they called it a rocking style so that’s what it meant to wang dang doodle”. – Willie Dixon

Towards the end of his career, Willie Dixon founded the Blues Heaven Foundation. Many blues artists of the early 20th century who wrote songs that have since been played and recorded by countless other musical artists have not held copyrights to their own work, depriving many of these artists of a reasonable portion of the millions and millions of dollars these classic compositions have generated over the decades. Dixon’s foundation seeks to secure these copyrights as well as preserve the legacy of the Blues and it’s essential contribution to 20th Century American music.

“The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.” – Willie Dixon

NEXT: THE HISTORY OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL 1959 PART FOUR: THE QUARRYMEN BREAK UP, THE DRIFTERS, WILBERT HARRISON, THE FLAMINGOES AND MORE.

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