The Versatility of Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon (collection de Pete Welding)

Willie Dixon was the primary songwriter for Chess Records in the 1950s.  He wrote for all of Chess’ big stars, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter.  When choosing a song for a performer to record or perform he did one of two things.  Willie Dixon would either choose a song for the artist out of his large stock of prewritten songs, or he would write a song on the spot for a particular artist.

Both of these methods of picking the perfect song took a lot of consideration on the part of Willie.  Many factors went into choosing what song would be appropriate for which artist.  One important element when choosing the song, or writing the song, was the appearance of the performer, or the persona which they put on while giving a show.  Something as seemingly trivial as a hairstyle or a signature dance move could lead WIllie to compose something different for an artist in order to fit their image.

Another thing that WIllie took into account while writing songs was an artist’s commercial history.  If an artist had had a big hit, then it is likely that Willie’s next song for them would be similar in style to that of their hit.  Willie also took into account the demographic that was primarily buying the music.  The age, gender and race of an artist’s fans was included in the thought process of writing a new song, so that the tune was sure to appeal to them.

Because of the wide variety of artists that Willie had to write for, he became proficient in writing in many different styles of music.  He was able to use regular forms and to modify forms.  He was able to write Tin Pan Alley, Jump blues, and Doo Wop.  He was also able to write both blues and pop songs.  This versatility lead Dixon to the top of the music industry, leading him to write some of the most influential songs of the century.