Free concert Sunday a tribute to native son

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 9, 2002

[10/9/02]He’s been called “the poet laureate of the blues” and “the father of modern Chicago blues,” and he was from right here in Vicksburg.

About 30 Mississippi musicians will perform beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Vicksburg Convention Center in a celebration jam for Vicksburg native and blues legend Willie Dixon. The concert is free and open to the public, but donations will be accepted to help erect a statue of Dixon in Vicksburg.

City officials will also dedicate a downtown street at 4 p.m. Monday as Willie Dixon Way. The street west of Washington Street between South and Veto streets, is currently unnamed.

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“It’s long overdue,” said local blues musician and historian David Hughes. “And it puts (Vicksburg) on the map.”

Dixon, a Vicksburg native, wrote more than 500 songs and played with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, said Hughes, who helped organize the street dedication and Sunday’s concert.

For his contributions to the post-World War II blues, Dixon was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, two years after his death.

“He really did more to shape post-war Chicago Blues than perhaps any other artist,” Hughes said.

Born in 1915 in Vicksburg, Dixon began rhyming, singing and writing songs in the second grade. One of his first gigs was singing with the Union Jubilee Singers, a gospel quartet with its own radio program on local radio station WQBC.

At age 17 in 1936, Dixon moved to Chicago, where he had a brief career as a boxer and a run-in with the Army, refusing induction on the grounds he was a conscientious objector. Then, in 1951, he began working full-time as a songwriter and staff musician for Chess Records.

During his time at Chess he wrote such well-known blues hits as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I’m Ready” and “I Just Want to Make Love To You,” performed by Muddy Waters; “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful” and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” performed by Howlin’ Wolf; “My Babe,” for Little Walter and “Wang Dang Doodle” for Koko Taylor.

Dixon released his first album as a solo artist, “Willie’s Blues,” in 1960 and, in 1988, the release of “Hidden Charms” won Dixon a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording.

In his later years, Dixon became an ambassador of the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation. The organization works to preserve the blues’ legacy and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past.

Dixon’s widow, Marie Dixon, who has continued his work with the foundation, will be in Vicksburg Monday on behalf of Dixon and the Blues Heaven Foundation for the street dedication and to accept a key to the city. Mayor Laurence Leyens said this is the start of an incentive by the administration to associate blues with Vicksburg.

“We’re where the Delta begins and we’re trying to re-establish our roots in the blues,” Leyens said.

Along with recognizing Dixon, the city is working with Hughes and other blues historians to establish a blues museum downtown. The former YMCA building at Clay and Monroe streets has been selected for the museum.

The Willie Dixon celebration jam at the Convention Center Sunday is being presented by Hughes and the Convention Center and is sponsored in part by Ameristar Casino’s Bottleneck Blues Bar. Larry Gawronski, director of the Convention Center, said the various artists will perform in a jam-session–type concert.

The center is using the stage set up for the Average White Band Oct. 2 concert and expects to spend less than $1,000 on Sunday’s event.

“I look at it as a Vicksburg open house,” Gawronski said. “Some things are not just about making money.”

The Convention Center will also sell concessions at the concert.