Hundreds of songs written by Mississippi-born Willie Dixon were recorded during his lifetime by a plethora of blues artists and blues-influenced rockers that includes Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Cream, Led Zeppelin and the Doors. His songs are still being recorded by blues and rock bands, smitten with his gift for imagery and slick ‘n’ gritty turns of phrase. That makes Dixon one of the 20th century’s most important and influential songsmiths.
Let’s celebrate Dixon by looking at 10 of his best-known tunes and the artists who’ve covered them on album and in concert:
• “Hoochie Coochie Man”: Dixon wrote this entry for Muddy Waters, who recorded it in 1954 for the Chess label. The disc shot right up to number eight on B illboard’s “race records” chart and became an instant blues classic. The term “hoochie coochie” was derived from a dance craze that emerged during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and stayed in the vernacular to connote sexual interest or prowess. Other “hoochie coochie” men who’ve recorded the song and covered it live including Dixon himself, Steppenwolf, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Mötorhead, Eric Clapton, Jeff Healey, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Burdon and the New York Dolls.
• “I Can’t Quit You Baby”: Dixon was an A&R man for both Chess Records and one of its early competitors, Cobra Records. He brought Magic Sam, Otis Rush and even, briefly, Buddy Guy to the latter’s garage studio to cut classics. The most enduring is “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” recorded by Rush in 1956. Rush’s soaring, searing vocal performance is like a stick of lit dynamite wedged in the heart. Contrary to popular belief the riveting, chiming lead guitar on the 45 r.p.m. recording is played by Ike Turner, another Cobra A&R man and session player, not Rush. Nonetheless, Rush made those guitar licks his own, to the extent that the only strong challenge to his recording is Led Zeppelin’s incendiary version from their debut album. Other artists who have performed the song include Gary Moore, John Mayall and bluesman Little Milton. The latter, for the uninitiated, was also a force to be reckoned with, with one of the strongest voices among the second generation of electric bluesman and a wicked way with finger picking a Gibson ES-335. Milton cut a second, late career version of the song with Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule that is absolutely incendiary.
• “Back Door Man”: It’s hard to upstage Howlin’ Wolf, a literal giant of the blues whose voice lived up to his moniker. But the Doors’ version of “Back Door Man” is more indelibly imprinted on the international psyche. They cut their pumping rendition on their 1967 debut album, just six years after Wolf’s original record, with Ray Manzarek’s keyboard carrying the riff and Robbie Krieger’s guitar liberated for exploration. The song’s also been notably performed by garage rock granddaddies the Shadows of Knight, the Grateful Dead, Bob Weir solo and the Blues Project.
• “Evil”: This song, with its images of black cats, mysterious barking dogs and bad news traveling along a telepathic trail is taken straight from the rural superstitions both Dixon and the first artist who cut it, Howlin’ Wolf, were raised on in rural Mississippi. And Wolf’s voice is perfect for its sense of menace. So was that of Captain Beefheart, one of the few singers who could approximate Wolf’s growl without straining. Canned Heat, Gary Moore, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Derek and the Dominos, the Faces, Steve Miller and rockers Monster Magnet have done other notable performances of the song.
• “I Just Want To Make Love To You”: When Muddy Waters cut this song in 1954 he could have had no inking that his recording would become a template for so many future performers. But this bit of sexual braggadocio has gone on to be famously immortalized by the Rolling Stones and Foghat, who both had hits with their versions, as well as the Animals, the Kings, Etta James, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, the Yardbirds, Paul Rogers, Tom Petty, Robben Ford, Cold Blood and the Meat Puppets, among many more — proving some things, like sex, never go out of style.
• “Little Red Rooster”: Just how close the so-called “British blues revival” came on the heels of the original wave of Chicago electric blues is measured by the mere three years between Howlin’ Wolf’s original 1961 version of this song for Chess Records and the Rolling Stones’ also classic cover. By “Little Red Rooster,” the Stones had proved their mettle as a blues band deserving of reckoning. Other famed artists who’ve cut this tracks include soul man Sam Cooke, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Gibson Les Paul-wielding juggernaut Luther Allison, the Jesus and Mary Chain (!!!), the great Big Mama Thornton of pre-Elvis Presley “Hound Dog” legend and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
• “My Babe”: This 1955 tune was a favorite for formative electric blues and early ’60s rock outfits. The definitive version is harmonica giant Little Walter’s swinging, first-cut rendition, but Sonny Boy Williamson II, John Hammond, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, James Cotton and Mississippi fife and drum band leader Othar Turner as well as Gibson Flying V blazer Lonnie Mack, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers and the Spencer Davis Group have all done it up.
• “Spoonful”: Whether you prefer the Cream or Howlin’s Wolf version of this number is purely a matter of taste or demographic. But both takes are definitive, with Wolf burrowing down deep in the groove and Cream launching into a psychedelic excursion. The song is about the vanity and greed that surround wealth and desire — heady stuff. Alternate versions by Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Paul Butterfield, the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, the Shadows of Knight, Ten Years After, the Who, Etta James, Delbert McClinton and even the pre-Allman Brothers Allman Joys exist.
• “Wang Dang Doodle”: Although this song debuted as a Howlin’ Wolf track in 1960, it became the theme song for the great blues belter Koko Taylor, who was a Dixon discovery. Savoy Brown, the Box Tops, PJ Harvey, Rufus Thomas, the Pointer Sisters and even Widespread Panic have all put their mark on it since.
• “I Ain’t Superstitious”: Howlin’ Wolf cut this one in 1960, but the definitive guitar powered version belong to the Jeff Beck Group, who tracked it for their brilliant 1968 debut album Truth. With Rod Stewart on vocals, the Beck Group performance is a college level course in wah-wah technique. Beck had performed the song earlier during his stint in the Yardbirds, so it was a natural tour-de-force for his own band’s early set lists. The Grateful Dead, Megadeth, British outlaw guitarist Chris Spedding and the White Stripes have also cut this one.