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Valley Weekend : MUSIC : ROCKTALK : Family Perpetuates a Legacy of the Blues : Willie Dixon set up a foundation before his death in 1992. Now his wife and children are making sure its programs continue.

October 19, 1995|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Willie Dixon left Chicago for the sunnier climates of Glendale at the beginning of the '80s with big plans for the blues.

By then, of course, the man was already a legendary songwriter and performer who was instrumental in creating modern blues music at Chess Records. His songs were recorded there by Muddy Waters ("I Just Want to Make Love to You"), Howlin' Wolf ("Back Door Man"), Little Walter ("My Babe"), Bo Diddley ("Pretty Thing") and many other key blues men.

So by the time he arrived in Southern California, he had other pressing business on his mind. Before his death in 1992 from heart failure, Dixon's mission was to promote the legacy of the blues, and Los Angeles was a good place to start.

"Daddy felt that even though California represented the (musical) artist capital of the world, that the blues had a low representation here," said Dixon's daughter, Shirli Dixon, 32. "He wanted to encourage more of the arts groups to accept and endorse the blues."

While in Glendale, Dixon still spent many of his days writing, both for himself and for such new collaborators as the Grateful Dead and the Chickisaw Mudpuppies. He also gave occasional music lessons to neighbors and family. "He had my twins, who were then 2 years old, learning the harmonica," said Shirli.

The blues master also began talking about the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to protect artists' rights and promote the blues through scholarships and other educational programs. It was an idea he'd had for several years, but didn't emphasize until shortly before his death.

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But he did begin work on the project early enough to write a strategic plan for the Blues Heaven Foundation with a nonprofit expert. That plan has been a guide for his widow, Marie, and 12 children to build the foundation into a significant advocate for the blues, based both in donated office space in Hollywood and at Dixon's old Glendale home.

"I feel he had been preparing me for this work my entire life," said Shirli Dixon, who first came to Glendale in 1991 to help care for her father. She is now the foundation's acting executive director and a sometime performer herself.

"He taught me about copyrights and publishing and things of that nature very early. As early as 8 years old I remember typing up lyric sheets and copyright forms. I'm assuming it was a role he was planning all along."

Among the programs already in effect is "Blues in the Schools," which provides free musical instruments to schools across the country. There is also a new fund (begun with donations from Robert Cray and John Lee Hooker) to help ailing musicians who otherwise cannot afford health insurance.

"We don't want to simply fund funerals," said Dixon. "We want to be able to assist them in their lives, give them something positive in their lifetime." By the end of this month, the foundation will move operations east to the old Chess Records building, which has been completely renovated by the foundation.

"Every member of the Dixon family will be relocating (to Chicago)," said Shirli Dixon, "except for a younger sister who will retain a small office here to assist the artists that require our help."

A local presence for the Blues Heaven Foundation will also remain via the annual benefit concerts that began last year.

This year's "Wang Dang Doodle" tribute to Willie Dixon arrives Oct. 24 at the Hollywood Palace, and will include performances--all donated--by Little Milton, Paul Rodgers, Bo Diddley, Arthur Adams, Lucky Peterson, John Hammond, Solomon Burke, Cash McCall and surprise guests.

"Last year's concert was 7 1/2 hours. We're not sure how long this one will be. That's why we call it a 'Wang Dang Doodle,' because it can go all night long."

For more information on the Blues Heaven Foundation, call (818) 507-8944.

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