By Damian Fanelli
Although you probably won’t see too many “100 Years of Willie Dixon” celebrations online today, we felt we needed to say something about this incredibly important figure in Chicago blues and rock history.
Dixon, who—as we’ve implied above—was born July 1, 1915, was primarily a bassist and singer (who also played guitar), but a bassist and singer who happened to write hundreds of incredible, often dark and eerie songs, several of which found their way into the catalogs of the biggest blues and rock artists of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and beyond.
These include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, Cream (and Eric Clapton), the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Gary Moore, George Thorogood, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf—to name just a few.
Today we’d like to celebrate Dixon’s would-be 100th birthday by pointing out 10 noteworthy covers of his songs. In fact, let’s make it 11. I say noteworthy, as opposed to best, because there’s simply a staggering amount of recordings to consider (live and studio). Let’s just say you can’t possibly go wrong with these 11.
Note that we’ve tried to include live versions of the songs, because they’re a hell of a lot more fun to watch than audio-only YouTube “videos.” Dixon died in 1992 at age 76.
Jeff Beck, “I Ain’t Superstitious”
Although Howlin’ Wolf recorded this Dixon tune in 1961, most rock fans made its acquaintance when Jeff Beck covered it on his first solo album, Truth, in 1968.
The song recounts various superstitions, including a black cat crossing the pathway, so Beck imitates the sound of a cat with his guitar and wah pedal. It’s just one of a multitude of sounds Beck can coax out of a guitar. That said, if my cats sounded like this, I’d rush them to the all-night animal hospital ASAP.
Here’s a live version from 2009, 41 years after it appeared on Truth. Beck even got the original vocalist, Rod Stewart, to sing it. That’s Tal Wilkenfeld on bass.
Just as “Crossroads” introduced a new generation of music fans to the mystique of Robert Johnson, Cream’s “Spoonful” brought exposure to Dixon, who wrote the song, and Howlin’ Wolf, who originally recorded it in 1960.
And while Howlin’ Wolf’s stark-and-dark version is haunting in its own right, Cream’s take on the song—driven by Clapton’s guitar and Jack Bruce’s heavy bass—moves it several steps further along.
At Cream’s live shows, “Spoonful” gave the band members plenty of room to stretch out, as can be heard on the nearly 17-minute-long version on Cream’s Wheels of Fire. Below is another great live version, complete with pro-shot footage of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Bruce in action. And just like the second season of F Troop, this video is in color.
Muddy Waters, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”
Here’s a live version of a powerful Dixon number that Muddy Waters made famous. This live version features Johnny Winter, Otis Blackwell, Eddie “Bluesman” Kirkland, Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards and Foghat, so you know it was filmed in the Seventies, which it was (1978). Let’s not forget the Stones’ sped-up version of this song, which is enjoyable in its own British way.
The Doors, “Back Door Man”
“Back Door Man,” a Chicago blues classic, was recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960 and released in 1961 by Chess Records as the B-side to Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” The Doors got to it a few years later, including it on their eponymous debut album. Doors drummer John Densmore said “Back Door Man” is “deeply sexual and got everyone moving.”
Eric Clapton, “Third Degree”
When Clapton recorded his intense From the Cradle album, which was hailed as his “return to the blues,” he was sure to include several Dixon compositions, including this one, which was co-written by Eddie Boyd. The other two were “Hoochie Coochie Man” and the dramatic and greasy “Groaning the Blues.”
By the way, in a 2011 GuitarWorld.com poll, From the Cradle was voted Clapton’s fourth-best guitar album, sandwiched between Cream’s Wheels of Fire (Number 5) and Disraeli Gears (Number 3).
Anyway, check out this fine mid-Nineties live version of “Third Degree” featuring Clapton playing a very nice Gibson. We wish he would play this guitar more often. OK, “we” is me.
Muddy Waters, “Hoochie Coochie Man”
This song was recorded or performed by a huge list of name-brand artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Phish, the New York Dolls, Dixon himself, the Allman Brothers Band and more. But the version belongs to Muddy Waters, who initially recorded it in 1954. It became one of Waters’ most popular and identifiable songs and helped secure Dixon’s role as Chess Records’ chief songwriter.
The Rolling Stones, “Little Red Rooster”
Can you believe the Stones took this song to Number 1 on the U.K. singles charts in late 1964? I think it’s the only time (ever) that a pure blues song has claimed the top spot on the U.K. charts.
“[This] was [Brian Jones'] masterpiece, his inspired guitar howling like a hound, barking like a dog, crowing like a rooster,” said Rolling Stones biographer Stephen Davis. As former Stones bassist Bill Wyman added, “I believe ‘Rooster’ provided Brian Jones with one of his finest hours.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, “Let Me Love You Baby”
This upbeat Dixon tune, a highlight of Vaughan’s 1989 In Step album, also was covered by Buddy Guy in ancient times. Check out this fan-filmed live version from November 11, 1989, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. I was actually at this show. A drunk guy threw up directly behind me, but my brother and my friend didn’t tell me. Good times!
The Small Faces, “You Need Loving”
I love including the Small Faces on these lists, because in 2015, they just don’t get the love they deserve. I also like what happens at exactly 3:35 in the YouTube player below. Be sure to head to that spot. Does it remind you of anything? Remember it was recorded in 1966.
When Dixon wrote this tune, it was called “You Need Love.” The song was, um, “borrowed” a few times after that.
Led Zeppelin, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”
Here’s the powerful, echo-filled Coda version of Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” as performed by Led Zeppelin. This is actually one of my favorite officially released Led Zeppelin recordings of all time. I love how Jimmy Page intentionally jumps the gun on the turnaround chords because he knew it would sound exciting if he did. And it did.
Buddy Guy, “When My Left Eye Jumps”
Buddy Guy’s version of this Dixon/Al Perkins tune features some great singing and guitar playing. It also includes the line: “When my left eye get to jumpin’, and my flesh begin to crawl / I know you got some other mule, that’s kickin’ in my stall.” Genius!
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His New York-based band, the Blue Meanies, has toured the world and elsewhere. Fanelli, a former member of Brooklyn jump-blues/rockabilly band the Gas House Gorillas and New York City surf-rock band Mister Neutron, writes GuitarWorld.com’s The Next Bend, a column dedicated to B-benders. His latest liner notes can be found in Legacy’s Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram.