In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Willie Dixon was a talented stand-up bass player, producer, and occasional vocalist for Chess Records, but his greatest gift lay in his pen. One cursory glance at his song titles – “Back Door Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover,” to name just a “Spoonful” – reveals what an impact he had not only on Chicago blues, but rock ‘n’ roll as well. No self-respecting sixties band with a blues foundation would dream of taking the stage without a working knowledge of Dixon’s songs, and he wrote more than 500 of them – songs that sounded immortal from the moment they were first created.
Dixon, who passed away on this date in 1992, deserves praise not only for his writing, but for his tireless fighting to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who’d been taken advantage of for far too long. However, since you can’t sing a lawsuit, we’re just going to focus on covers of five of his biggest hits. These five were originally performed by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and they’ve been covered by hundreds of artists since, but they all speak with the one great voice of Willie Dixon.
Dave Van Ronk – Hootchie Kootchie Man (Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon cover)
If you love Rock ‘n’ Roll High School but haven’t seen Get Crazy, it’s a lot of fun and well worth watching. It features three different versions of “Hootchie Cootchie Man” – one blues, one rock, and one very punk version that prompts the film’s Muddy Waters stand-in to yell out, “Who said a white boy can’t sing the blues!” Well, here’s a wholly unrelated fourth version by Dave Van Ronk, the man who was Llewyn Davis before Llewyn Davis was cool.
Captain Beefheart – Evil (Is Going On) (Howlin’ Wolf/Willie Dixon cover)
When Don Van Vliet was first testing his wings as Captain Beefheart, he wasn’t yet doing the avant-jazz cacophony that would become his calling card; rather, he led a fairly straightforward blues-rock band. Their cover of Dixon’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” is relatively well-known (if you haven’t had the pleasure, check it out here), but they did other Dixon songs too – no surprise, as Beefheart’s voice is one of the few in rock history that could be justifiably compared to Howlin’ Wolf’s. This version of “Evil,” recorded live in 1966, is further proof of that.
The Small Faces – You Need Loving (Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon cover)
Led Zeppelin were big fans of Willie Dixon, covering “You Shook Me,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and “Bring It On Home.” They also quite liked his “You Need Love,” especially as performed by the Small Faces (who changed the title to “You Need Loving”). When Led Zeppelin II was released, people couldn’t help noticing the similarities “Whole Lotta Love” had with Dixon’s lyrics and vocalist Steve Marriott’s phrasings. One out-of-court settlement later, Dixon got a writing credit. Robert Plant, when asked about it, shrugged and said, “Well, you only get caught when you’re successful.”
Mungo Jerry – I Just Wanna Make Love To You (Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon cover)
If you only know Mungo Jerry from “In the Summertime” – and hey, who doesn’t? – then you really owe it to yourself to see what else they were capable of. This cover of “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” is nine minutes of unrelenting blooze that deserves to be mentioned many breaths before Foghat’s. From flute to fuzz pedal, it runs the musical gamut and must have been glorious onstage. Sing along with us, dee dee dee dee dee.
Hindu Love Gods – Wang Dang Doodle (Howlin’ Wolf/Willie Dixon cover)
While Michael Stipe took five, Warren Zevon fronted the other three-quarters of R.E.M. on Hindu Love Gods, an all-cover album and the only release by that supergroup (allegedly recorded in one drunken night). They scored a minor hit with “Raspberry Beret,” but also took the time to sing the blues, covering two Robert Johnson tunes and one Muddy Waters one as well as “Wang Dang Doodle,” which sounds like it’s constantly on the verge of turning into “Who Do You Love.”