Sunday, July 24, 2011

Willie Dixon

Having read Deke Dickerson's essay on seeing Willie Dixon in person in his home town ( I am inspired to do same. Like Deke, I was a pretty new fan to blues music at the time in the early 1970s, but I was of legal age and needed no chaperone as he did!

Willie Dixon and His Chicago Blues All-Stars played a six-night gig at the Red Baron in Lawrence, Kansas (not to be confused with the Red Dog Inn downtown), in March 1973, six months after Muddy Waters did a similar six nights. Just like with Muddy's gig, I chose to see the Saturday night show, the final night. Willie's band that night included the great Lafayette Leake on piano, Carey Bell on harmonica, Buster Benton (of "Spider In My Stew" fame) on guitar, and I think Clifton James on drums. At this point I know I had never seen anyone play the upright bass, an instrument I would become extremely used to seeing as the rockabilly revival started up in a few years. Everybody in the group took turns playing their own tunes and of course Willie sang oh-so-many tunes he wrote for hitmakers at Chess Records, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. Lafayette played great piano that sounded the way he did on records and unlike any rock band player I'd ever heard. Willie played his bass solo a couple of times where he plucks the strings not unlike the rockabilly doghouse bass players. After the show I asked Lafayette what he likes to play for himself at home. He looked at me with utmost seriousness and said "Chopin and spirituals" as if it offered him release from those dirty ol' blues. Carey Bell then offered us canned Budweisers. Having politely declined, I suspect he was sensing some religious convictions so he exclaimed "Oh well, hallelujah then." The perfect response.

Almost a decade later, Willie Dixon returned to Lawrence, Kansas, again shortly after what would be Muddy Waters' last appearance in our area, at the larger Lawrence Opera House in October 1981 (I still have my ticket stubs to all of these shows.) A funny thing happened regarding the opening act. They were a local group of young, black, local musicians who played then-contemporary R&B, somewhere in the funk/disco/rap range that met with stone cold silence from the white blues fan audience. …crickets… After their set, the members of this band set up camp at a table near the stage. They were laughing their heads off. I could overhear part of the talk. They seemed to think that if the audience didn’t like them they would certainly walk out on this old man who uses a cane. I was set to watch their expressions when they saw the audience response to the appearance of Willie Dixon. Well, not at all surprisingly, the audience jumped to its collective feet and screamed frantic applause before Willie’s last name was said by the announcer. Indeed Willie hobbled out on a cane, having had a foot removed due to his diabetes. The funk dudes’ jaws dropped to the floor. They could not figure out why everyone in the place was already at volume 10. I don’t think they ever got it. Well, at this show, Willie had sons Butch & Freddie on bass and piano. The real treat for me was Snooky Pryor on harmonica, another Chicago blues legend. He wore an old fashioned gray suit. When he cupped the harmonica to his mouth and stood at a profile angle, with that old suit on I swear he looked just like the black and white photos of Sonny Boy Williamson. And he sounded as good, too. Another great night of South side Chicago blues, performed in a Midwest town less than a day’s drive from Chicago, to a very with-it but younger audience.