Blues You Can Use - Willie Dixon: When "Wrong" is Right

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.”
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 be amazed!



Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.


Songs of Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon [Folkways]