During the past thirty years, everyone from Elvis to the Rolling Stones has acknowledged rock 'n' roll's debt to Willie Dixon, recording his classic tunes and bringing them to mass audiences. But it wasn't until years later that many in the record industry who'd profited from his songs began to share the wealth with Dixon.
Like countless other influential black music figures in America, Dixon was someone the music business thought it could take for a cheap ride, profiting off his work and paying him only lip service. Today, the overdue royalties are rolling in for the 74-year-old bluesman, thanks to a variety of successful lawsuits--one over Led Zeppelin borrowing parts of his song "You Need Love" for its classic rock number "Whole Lotta Love." But Dixon is anything but satisfied with his own bank account. Rather than close the book on his own mistreatment and retire contentedly, he's out to get all those unsung heroes of the blues their rightful fortunes.
"Just like I wasn't getting anything from mine, all the other people, especially the black people, weren't getting anything for theirs," Dixon says in an interview after his show in Tucson last Friday. The longtime Chicagoan, who has stopped touring, was making a rare Arizona appearance courtesy of his son Bobby, who lives in Tucson. "The recording companies and the publishing companies and everybody that was involved in it was getting the money rather than the creators of the music. . . . The world was made rich through many of the things that we created and many of our heritages."
In 1982, Dixon set up the Blues Heaven Foundation, which, he says, "gave us the chance to publicize, organize and try to get various cases through court that could help us in many ways. We showed how to have the publication and the protection on their songs, and then on top of that, the law is on our side a little bit."
Blues Heaven doesn't stop there, though. The foundation, whose honorary board members include Dan Aykroyd and John Lee Hooker, also offers college scholarships, donates instruments to urban schools and sells photos of blues legends. "All of these things we do to try and promote the blues and get our people to knowing their heritage," he says.
The time, money and effort Dixon has spent on both his own legal battles and his work with Blues Heaven apparently haven't taken a toll on his prolific songwriting. Last year the bluesman composed and produced the soundtrack for a small film called Ginger Ale Afternoon and won a Grammy for Blues Album of the Year with his record Hidden Charms. The award-winning release demonstrated the timeliness of his tunes, showcasing a song (co-written by his grandson Alex) called "Study War No More," in which Dixon sounds more like a present-day protest singer than one of the blues' pre-eminent songwriters: "The money spent on bombs alone/Can build poor people a happy home/And some good that we can do/You treat me like I treat you."
(Dixon left "Study War No More" out of his Tucson set, instead belting out better-known tunes like "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Wang Dang Doodle.")
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Modern blues has to stay current to thrive, says Dixon. But he points out that the conflict in "Study War No More" is essentially the same one that's been around since the days of Cain and Abel.
While Dixon doesn't see the blues as a solution to the world's problems, he says the music can be a prime source of communication and information. Unlike pop songs, he says, blues tunes don't view the world through rose-colored glasses.
"You look through the various statements of the blues and there's wisdom," he says. "And wisdom is the part that the world has been needing for generations, and I think it's getting a certain type of wisdom through the blues that it's not getting through any other type of music.
"That's what the blues are--the true facts. People . . . [will] find that the blues was always there to give them the proper information on the facts of life."