Willie Dixon: The blues artist Keith Richards called “one of the best songwriters”

News Willie Dixon: The blues artist Keith Richards called “one of the best songwriters”

Every piece of The Rolling Stones seemed to have one foot trailing back into the blues. They may not have stayed with the same I-IV-V progressions that their idols did, but when looking at their presentation and swagger, it’s hard to think of the band as anything other than modern bluesmen who happen to play rock and roll. Keith Richards may have had more than a few musical wells to choose from in the band’s prime, but in terms of songwriting, he was always looking to Willie Dixon as the gold standard.

Before rock and roll, blues was the genre that you could go to if you wanted to sound menacing. The artists that played this music were by no means the most dangerous men and women in the world, but when you hear them talking about the pain in their hearts, you know that they had done some hard living that got them to where they are.

Even though many fans tend to flock to the guitarists of the blues tradition for inspiration, Dixon was one of the few who chose the bass first. Given that it’s nearly impossible to look like a commanding presence with a stand-up bass in your hands, Dixon took his songs to the mainstream with tracks like ‘You Need Love’…they weren’t his songs.

As much as Dixon may have done for the blues tradition, he got his name plastered on the greatest hits of artists like Led Zeppelin, with Robert Plant jacking the main melodic line from ‘You Need Love’ for ‘Whole Lotta Love’. It was certainly nothing new for British blues artists to pull from other bands, but Richards knew that there was something different when he heard Dixon play.

When discussing some of the best blues players in the world, Richards ranked him on the same level as giants like Muddy Waters, saying, “He’s the backbone of postwar blues writing, the absolute. Personally, I talk of him and Muddy in the same breath…Willie, to me, is a total gent and one of the best songwriters I can think of. Willie Dixon is superior”.

Despite pioneering some of the greatest guitar licks in rock history, Richards did end up taking a good deal of inspiration from Dixon as well. The way that all good Rolling Stones sound the way they do is their emphasis on rhythm, which Dixon taught almost everyone who heard him.

Compared to the other blues players of today, who start off fairly clean, the blues was never meant to be sanitised. This was a grungey art form, and the best way of keeping things rooted to the ground was to put a little bit more grease in between the guitar licks, making the song sound like it was actually breathing rather than just hitting the audience from all sides.

More than anything, learning from Willie Dixon’s music isn’t something that you can really study in a book. It’s all about learning by example, and once you have that bluesy foundation in your bones, it will never go away.

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