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I AM THE BLUES: The Willie Dixon Story By Willie Dixon with Don Snowden (Da Capo: $12.95; 264 pp., paper)

October 21, 1990|CHRIS GOODRICH

It's appropriate that Willie Dixon's autobiography should have been published first in Britain, for American blues musicians have long received more respect abroad than at home. And it's embarrassing, too, for Dixon, who now lives in Los Angeles, is responsible for numerous rock classics like "Spoonful," "Back Door Man" and "Little Red Rooster."

Noting Dixon's influence on the rock world is a bit disingenuous, however, for "I Am the Blues" has almost nothing to do with the likes of Presley, Clapton and Jagger. This book is the real thing, told in a great bluesman's own words: about growing up black, poor and musically gifted.

"I Am the Blues" is a somewhat ungainly package, frequent Los Angeles Times contributor Don Snowden having stitched together interviews with Dixon and other blues people with a factual narrative of his own. But it works, mainly because Dixon's presence in the book is so strong and commanding.

Born in 1915 in Mississippi, Dixon "got up to be a pretty good size" (as he puts it) by age 12 and began making as much as a dollar a day hauling anything heavy--ice, timber, coal. He also let people slug him for a nickel--business actually picked up, Dixon reports, after a self-described prizefighter broke an arm hitting him in the stomach--and became a good enough boxer to win a Golden Gloves heavyweight championship in Chicago, where Dixon moved in 1936. He was suspended after four fights following a scuffle over fees in the boxing commissioner's office, but by that time the blues culture on the city's South Side had given Dixon a new career.

Dixon had sold songs to other musicians since his early teens, but the segregated music world ensured that he couldn't make a living at it. He made spending money from playing bass and singing with various bands, the best known being the Big Three Trio, which usually performed for white audiences, unlike most other great Chicago blues groups. The general indifference to the blues at the time can be gauged by the fact that the band once had to play the latter song with polka players, leading Dixon to write, "Boy, a polka band can mess up a blues worse than anything in the world."

Dixon tells scores of stories like that one--about his years as a studio producer for Chess records; about the European tours in which bluesmen were treated nearly like royalty; about long-running attempts to regain copyrights to his songs--and they make "I Am the Blues" a marvelous read. Few books feel as authentic as this one, and it certainly accomplishes Dixon's purpose: to educate listeners about "the facts of life and the wisdom and knowledge of the blues."

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