Willie Dixon, Little Walter and “My Babe”

In my last blog post about Willie Dixon, I explored how Dixon used the personality of Muddy Waters to create a persona about him to help boost his career as a blues musician.  Essentially, Dixon took what was already in Muddy Waters’ patterns of behavior and  as a starting point to give him an on-stage and on-record presence. However, with other performance, sometimes he had to experiment with his formulas a little. In fact, Dixon had to do almost the exact opposite with someone like Little Walter, whose personality was as photogenic. But, like most of my blog posts about the Blues, let’s start with how Cadillac Records portrays the singer through the lens of Hollywood and Walter’s “My Babe.”

The problem with Little Walter was simple: he was, in a word, brash. A friend of Walter’s, Luther Tucker, once said that he “loved to smoke grass, drink whiskey, chance [sic: supposedly “chase”] women, fight. . . . And he beat women, too. If a woman give him some lip, he’d fatten it up for her. And they’d just love it . . . it was amazing; they liked what he was doing” (Inaba 103) His personality in real life was not exactly as marketable as Muddy Water’s ‘mysterious bad black man’ persona, which attracted customers to his music. Dixon wanted Walter to attract people, not have them report the misanthropic harmonica player for black eyes and fat lips! So, Dixon started to create a persona for him, someone who could match Muddy Waters in charm but younger, slicker and a little less rough around the edges. He needed a clean look, and Dixon made him out to be “an ideal boyfriend who is truthful to his girl- friend: a ‘one-woman guy’ or ‘nice guy'” through some of his song choices and ideas (Inaba 103).

Dixon wrote Little Walter the song “My Babe” to create such a persona, and like Muddy Waters before him, Walter made it into a hit. Dixon knew that only Walter could have performed that song:

“I felt Little Walter had the feeling of this ‘My Babe’ song. He was the type of fellow who wanted to brag about some chicks, somebody he loved, something he was doing or getting away with. He fought it for two long years and I wasn’t going to give the song to nobody but him” (Inaba 111)

And as the best might say, the rest is history. A relatively short one, admittedly, as Little Walter died in 1968. He came into the lime-light bright as a shooting star, and ended as abruptly.

References:
– Inaba, Mitsutoshi. Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, May 2011. eBook.

The Chess Brothers and the Macomba Lounge

Let’s start at the end of the story: in 1950, the Macomba Lounge burned to the ground, taking nobody but the building proper with it. In a single night, the Chess Brothers realized that they were given an opportunity in disguise. With their business acumen in the recording industry and their stake in Aristocrat Records, they took the insurance money that came from what was settled in their lounge and started Chess Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

Let’s work backwards from the burning rumble of what was left of the Macomba Lounge. Let the fire that tore the place done from the roof to the floor, while “patrons and musicians were scrambling to get out,” reverse its handiwork and let time turn back to the time when the Macomba Lounge was first under the hands of the Chess Brothers in 1946 (Cohodas 907). What happened in that little club that helped the brothers get their start in the music industry? What was the environment that allowed them to know exactly what his customers wanted in the business? And more importantly, what was so important about that club

To anyone as business savvy as Leonard Chess, the Macomba Lounge was one of a three-pronged business strategy that the brothers Chess operated before the club burned down: “Leonard operated three discrete entities between 1942 and 1950, none of them simultaneously: Cut-Rate Liquor, 708 Liquor Store, and then the Macomba Lounge” (Cohodas 280-281). Situated right in one of Chicago’s burgeoning African-American neighbourhoods, the Chess brothers started to learn about the music and culture that would help in their dealings in the music industry in the coming years. More than that, it also became a place where they could test out the talents of the young musicians that would darken their doorsteps.

In the Macomba Lounge, the music played and the people partied:

“Everybody was out every night having a good time. It was a world of pimps, hookers, maids, chauffeurs, good-time whites, factory workers, white collar workers, musicians, entertainers, bartenders, waiters— everybody hanging out together… when a little money went a long way and there was no tomorrow” (Cohodas 399-401).

It was in this type of environment did the Lounge thrive, as Leo Chess made sure that people came for the liquor, stayed for the entertainment, but came back for the musicians who constantly took over the bandstand. The likes of Tom Archia, tenor saxophonist, would be enough to attract other talent to come and play for the lounge proper. Some of the more well-known talents came over and stayed a while, like Ella Fitzgerald or Max Roach, but no one Phil or Leo ever hired. Rather, they began to have a feel for the African-American community by master their vernacular and noting their musical tastes. It’s arguable that the time they spent with the people in the community, be it the middle-class black folk looking for a good time or the junkies looking for another dealer, gave them a second sense of what type of music would sell and what wouldn’t: “The crowds in the Macomba and the popularity of Tom Archia and some of the other musicians were certainly an indication that a market for their music existed,” but it was knowing how to tap into that market that gave Chess records an edge (Cohodas 634-635).

From the ashes of the Macomba Lounge, Chess Records rose like a Phoenix. Combining their knowledge bases from their time in Aristocrat Records and in the Macomba Lounge (and more than a little capital from both), the Chess Brothers became a force to be reckoned with in the music industry.

Resources:
– Cohodas, Nadine. Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. NYC, NY: Iconoclassic Books. May 2012. Kindle Edition eBook.

Willie Dixon and the “Hoochie Coochie Man”

Sorry for the late post, dear readers! Times have been busy as of late, and schedules have not been kind to this weary, earthly frame. That said, now that we’re here, let’s talk about one of the more popular licks in Blues history, and the man behind the man who who gave the world that now famous and unmistakably iconic riff: Willie Dixon. Here’s a clip from Cadillac Records where Willie Dixon gave McKinley Morganfield, now Muddy Waters, his most iconic song of his career called (I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.

Willie Dixon was one smooth operator in the music business, keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each and every musician on the Chess company payroll, using his wide array of musical knowledge and intuition to tailor-fit certain tunes, lyrics, songs and even entire personas to his fellow music makers. As portrayed in the movie, Dixon gave the hook to Muddy Waters to make his own. However, in real life, Dixon gave him the tune in the bathroom of Club Zanzibar where Muddy Waters was performing in 1953. Dixon said that the moment he knew that song, he took off with it:

He went right up on stage that first night and taught the band the little riff I showed him. He did it first shot and, sure enough, the people went wild over it. He was doing that song until the day he died (Inaba 80).

However, as savvy as Dixon was with the people he worked with, he didn’t just write the song for him: “Shirli Dixon[, Wille Dixon’s daughter,] gives this account: “I don’t know if he wrote it for [Muddy Waters], but I think when he wrote it, he wanted somebody like Muddy. He wanted somebody…that could deliver that type of message, because they had the whole look, total package” (Inaba 81). Beneath that mean little riff and the now instantly-recognizable song, Dixon also packed a whole lot of symbolism and mythology, taking from both the African-American folk tradition of the “black badman tales” and the Caribbean and Central American symbols of the hoodoo and voodoo tradition, giving Muddy Waters that air of mysteriousness and promiscuity (Inaba 81). Muddy Waters was already a bit of a heartbreaker in his own right, but the persona Dixon gave him through this song, coupled with Waters’ powerful stage persona and rough singing voice, boosted the effect the music and lyrics created. And his audience knew it too; the majority of the Blues listeners knew what Dixon’s lyrics were alluding to, and the power of what both singer and songwriter was tapping into.

Waters enjoyed that song, and the fame that it gave him, until the day he stopped performing, quickly becoming his favorite, his most recognized and his most brilliant song in his entire career. He may have had hits, but none hit so hard as being the Hoochie Coochie Man of that same song.

References:
– Inaba, Mitsutoshi. Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, May 2011. eBook.

Muddy Waters and the Electric Sound

Here’s one of the more important yet somewhat subtle scene in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records: the day Muddy Waters met Electricity. Now, I would have embedded the video right here and now, but the format of the blog is keeping me from doin’ it. So do us all a favor: click the link an’ watch that video.

Done? Let’s continue…

The guitar was one of the easiest instruments to play on the fields. With a little tuning, a little plucking, and a little time and skill, any ole’ share cropping farmer could create a little music to ease their weary soul. It was portable, so it could be hauled out of the shack and into a juke joint with ease. It was cheap, so most anyone could afford it. And, most important of all, it was versatile, so one could be singing the Lord’s praises one minute and your woes with women without skipping a beat. Many man who sang the Delta Blues used the guitar to make their way into the national ear, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, and many others. So in a way, McKinley Morganfield of Issaquena County was joining a long proud tradition. But it wasn’t until he took the country-fried Delta Blues and electrified it did he really grow into Muddy Waters: the day Muddy “would leave the Delta for Chicago” (Gordon 35).

Living in the Delta meant living without. Electricity was pretty common in the early part of the century, but in the more impoverished parts of the United States, as modern as it touted itself to be then and now, even that was considered a bit of a luxury. As much hustling as Waters did in this formative years, the life he lived was as poor as the dirt the cotton grew from. It wasn’t until after he heard himself sing and play, courtesy of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, that he realized that he could actually land himself a bigger career than playing in the juke joints around Clarksdale. In 1943, he moved to Chicago to break into the business, learning more than he ever could in that country farm. But, it wasn’t until 1945, years after cutting his teeth on the hard heart of the Windy City, did Muddy Waters’ uncle, Joe Grant, gave him an electric guitar to be heard over the din of the crowded clubs.

His blues suddenly gained a power all of its own. Coupled with his voice, run ragged by years of the labor but fortified with years of practice, it rang with the truth. It was the sound of the hard country life coupled with the more modern elements of the city. It was as if he suddenly had a way to let all of Chicago know exactly how hard he had it working the fields and hustling the town to get where he was today. He’d been through the school of hard knocks, and his electric sound was a hell of a diploma to show for it. He became something the public couldn’t ignore, and if Leo Chess was worth his salt as a producer, he made sure that the public didn’t. He signed Waters on soon after he went electric, and the rest is history.

To modern ears, the sound itself may not be entirely new, but boy howdy did it ever impress. I’ll end this blog post with another scene from Cadillac Records: this time, it’s Muddy meeting Little Walter, impressing him with his newfound electric sound. Remember it, as its electric touch runs throughout the movie, and throughout the history of popular American music.

References:
– Gordon, Robert. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2002. Print.

The Mississippi Delta: A Quick & Dirty Geography Lesson

I’m not from this country, first of all, so my own introduction to the Blues, or what I thought was the Blues, didn’t come from the area most associated with the Blues. In fact, the first time I encountered any sort of music that even vaguely associated with the Blues was in Ray Charles’s cover of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in the 2001 animated Metropolis film.

But I digress. Have a map of Mississippi:

DANG IT'S A SWEET MAP.

I don’t know much about the geography of the US, so my first stop was an obvious one: Mississippi Delta Tourism Association’s official tourist site. It sells the place as an adventure for the types who like to take the backroads instead of the interstates, where every stop has something fun and unique, taking particular interest in the music found there. The site quotes a famous author about the region, saying that it “begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg” (Cohn).

In actuality, the area known as the Mississippi Delta is a large, northwest part of the state, where the Mississippi and the Yazoo rivers run parallel, bordering the place in a large flood plain, which, according to historian and author Ted Gioia, is “shaped like the leaf of a pecan tree hanging lazily over the state” (1). It used to be an inhospitable wilderness, until it was deemed fertile ground for then-prospective, soon-successful cotton plantation owners before the U.S. Civil War. Here, fields of white were dotted by the slaves sent out to pick them from sun up to sun down while plantation owners sipped on their tea. Out of the thick, unyielding soil, however, something else took root. From the combined musical traditions of the slaves, the church and the country, the Blues grew.

Have another, more detailed and modern road map:

It may seem small, but this little floodplain became the roots of some of the most popular musical styles ever, and the backbone of music as we know it. It always helps to know a little geography.

References:
– Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. NY: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
– Cohn, David L. Where I Was Born and Raised. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1948. Print.