LET’S TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT THE MUSIC OF WILLIE DIXON, A MAN WHOSE LONG LIST OF
hit songs earned him the sobriquet “the Poet of the Blues.” As great as his songs were, let us not forget that he
was also one bad whamma-jamma of a bass player! When you consider that this writer/arranger/producer was also
one of the top slap bassists of his time, it’s not a stretch to view Marcus Miller as his modern-day counterpart.
Willie’s career put him in the company of many great artists, but his longstanding relationship with pianist
Memphis Slim produced some of Dixon’s finest recordings on bass. Last month I referred to a song called “Joggie
Boogie” from Songs of Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. It features Willie at his best—walkin’, slappin’, and soloin’ his
butt off over a C blues progression, with just piano accompaniment. The bass is right up front, and his tone is clear
as a bell. It’s a rare opportunity to hear Dixon’s mastery without being buried under a pile of guitars and drums.
The energy level of “Joggie Boogie” builds throughout the 3:28 track, with Dixon and Slim upping the ante
with each chorus, but by the end, Willie has devastated all with his powerhouse rhythmic drive. Each player takes
two rounds of solos on this track, and both times Willie astounds with his ferocious chops, stamina, and sense
of humor. Example 1 is simply a walking bass line over a C blues, but most significantly, it is the walking line
that Willie played on most of his recordings. You can find this line repeated note-for-note on another Memphis
Slim track, “Slim’s Thing,” but Dixon essentially reused this line anytime he
played a boogie in C. In addition, Dixon transposed many of the musical elements
of this line for use in other keys, making this example his template
for walking blues.
Example 1 is an approximation of the basic line from “Joggie Boogie,”
a fairly straightforward boogie, with several earmarks that are pure Willie
Dixon. I have tabbed it out as I believe he would have played it on upright
bass. It starts with the classic R–3–5–6 climb, but playing the octave twice
in bar 2 (8–8–6–5), in the simplest of ways, makes this line uniquely his. In
a 12-bar form, he would typically repeat this two-bar pattern, then play the
triad of the IV chord (F7) in bar 5 in typical fashion. Bar 6 contains another
classic Dixon-ism, playing G and E on beats three and four—the 5th and 3rd
of the I chord (C7), while still on the IV chord (F7). He uses this pattern in
bar 6 throughout the track, and pretty much on everything he recorded.
The pattern also illustrates Dixon’s penchant for not strictly adhering to the
changes, at least not how you might expect.
In bars 7 and 8, the boogie line starts out typically (R–3–5–6), but continues
climbing up to the 10th of the chord—a daring jump of a major 3rd that
many players avoid. This Dixon calling card gets transposed with great frequency,
but in the key of C, the open G string is of great use. Another illustration
of Dixon’s use of this pattern (and his sometimes quizzical disregard for
the chord change) happens on the original recording of “Big 3 Stomp” [Willie
Dixon, Poet of the Blues, Columbia]. Dixon plays his typical C boogie pattern
through the tune’s A section, but when the B section initiates a descending
chord progression (I7–bVII7–bVI7–V7), he plays
the R–3–5–6–8–10–5–6 pattern from C—without
making the chord changes, as shown in Ex.
2. Does his total disregard of the changes make
it wrong? It’s impossible to know what led him to
these choices, but it creates an engrossing tension
as the repetition of the line clashes and resolves—
and it grooves like a mutha.
Back to Ex. 1, in bars 9 and 10, once again we
see Dixon’s unique approach to harmony. The V
(G7) chord is well represented in bar 9 with a root–5
pattern, but in bar 10 he plays the R–3–5 of the I
chord—over the IV chord—every time! The chorus
ends without incident, playing his basic straightforward
C boogie pattern for bars 11 and 12.
When examining the totality of his work and
influence on music, it is hard to criticize a player
of Dixon’s stature for these harmonic idiosyncrasies,
and while one would think the basic chord
structure of the 12-bar blues form is non-negotiable,
Willie Dixon is not someone to argue with.
Make a point of listening to Willie Dixon and Memphis
Slim’s recording of “Joggie Boogie”—you will
Ed “the Bass
writes, and teaches
out of his bass base
in Austin, Texas.
Songs of Memphis
Slim and Willie