When Shirley Dixon was 13, a friend played her an album by Led Zeppelin, and something struck the girl as odd. Thinking the song "Whole Lotta Love" sounded familiar, she borrowed the album, took it home and played it for her father, blues songwriter-producer Willie Dixon, who confirmed her suspicion.
It was, in places, virtually identical to his song "You Need Love." And he wasn't being paid royalties for it.
"It was around Christmas time, and I said, 'Dad, I think I have a present for you,' " she recalls.
Today, as acting executive director of the Blues Heaven Foundation, she helps other blues artists recover or preserve their royalties and rights. The organization was established in 1979 by her father, who died in 1992, and boosted in 1987 with money from an out-of-court settlement in the Zeppelin case. But, looking back, Shirley Dixon realizes that her father had been training her for this mission from her early childhood days.
"By the time I was 8 I had filled in many copyright forms and typed his lyrics out and mailed contracts," says Dixon, 31, sitting in the busy Glendale home that doubles as the foundation's headquarters. "I had no idea what he was preparing me for, which is this."
The nonprofit organization is hosting a benefit concert Tuesday at B.B. King's Blues Club on Universal City's CityWalk to help fund its efforts to assist blues artists and to refurbish the historic Chess Studios in Chicago as a blues education center. Among those scheduled to perform are John Lee Hooker (with Ry Cooder), Branford Marsalis, Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor, George Thorogood, Pops Staples and the Pointer Sisters.
As chief songwriter and producer at Chess in the '50s and '60s, Dixon was a seminal figure in modern blues, creating such classics as "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Little Red Rooster" for artists including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
And notwithstanding the battle with Led Zeppelin, Dixon was an enthusiastic mentor for young rockers who sought him out. Among them: the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who includes three Dixon songs on his new blues album, "From the Cradle."
"Every white kid who ever picked up a guitar has probably sung a Willie Dixon song," says Elton John's longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, who became a close friend of Dixon's in the last year of the bluesman's life and is executive producer of the benefit.
Adds Taupin, "He suffered heavily (from not being compensated), and I think it's a great credit to him that he wanted to make sure it didn't happen to other people."
Shirley Dixon stresses that Blues Heaven is not just for older musicians who were taken advantage of when the music business was less sophisticated.
"Sure it's 1994, but nothing has changed," she says. "Generally young artists have more options or have learned by others' experience. But it depends on how hungry they are. Sometimes they'll sign a contract regardless of what they know, and they need to be made aware that there are options."
* \o7 The Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation benefit will be Tuesday, 8 p.m., at B.B. King's Blues Club, CityWalk, Universal Studios. Tickets are $250 (which includes dinner and a private party with the artists) and $100. Information: (818) 507-7613.\f7