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Obituaries

Floyd Dixon, 77; Blues Singer, Pianist Influenced Ray Charles

July 28, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Floyd Dixon, the singer and jump-blues pianist who dubbed himself "Mr. Magnificent" and became an influential figure in the burgeoning R&B scene of 1950s Southern California, died Wednesday of cancer at Chapman Hospital in Orange. He was 77.

Dixon's best-known song was the raucous "Hey Bartender," which was made popular by the Blues Brothers.

His other notable recordings included "Wine, Wine, Wine," "Call Operator 210," "Telephone Blues" and the early Jerry Lieber-Mike Stoller song "Too Much Jelly Roll."

His career found him taking on a variety of styles and sounds: mournful blues, R&B ballads, ribald bar songs and even a channeling of Little Richard on late 1950s tracks such as "Oooh Little Girl." But his strongest suit was jump blues, which added a grit and vigor to the smooth blues lessons he absorbed from his major influence, Charles Brown.

"I liked Charles Brown's style more than just about anybody's," Dixon told an interviewer two years ago. "People told me I sounded like that before I even heard him."

Dixon was born Feb. 8, 1929, in Marshall, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border, where he taught himself to play the piano and soaked up the region's blues, gospel and rural music styles. At age 13, his family moved to Los Angeles during World War II and found, as did so many arrivals in that decade, that the growing city was a place of much promise and easy disappointment.

To pay the bills he worked at a drugstore and caddied, but his young eye was pulled toward other pursuits -- he took courses in hotel management and considered a football career. Always, though, he sang and longed to make it into a living. In 1947, he made his first recording, "Dallas Blues" for Supreme Records and after that, it was all about the music.

Again and again, he was told that he sounded like Brown, who was known for his mellow blues and burnished stage performances. In 1948, Dixon won the big talent show at the Million Dollar Theater and some people in the audience thought that he was Brown -- except for those who noticed that Brown was seated up front, watching.

"That was something," Dixon told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004. "The people just screamed and yelled and laughed, because they thought it was Charles and they didn't know it was me."

Brown would help the younger man's career. Dixon would pass on that mentorship, famously to Ray Charles, B.B. King and Robert Cray as the decades went by. Charles would become famous for melding gospel and R&B into the potent concoction called soul music, and some music commentators say that in the hoarse, church-born vocal style of Dixon, Charles may have found a compass point for the direction that made him famous. Before going on the road with Dixon, Charles' sound was far closer to that of the polished Nat King Cole than to the raw soul sound he would later create.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were a feverish time for black music in Los Angeles, and its reach and accomplishment were historic. The confluence of styles in jitterbugging postwar years found up-tempo blues, sophisticated R&B and swing merging into a music that would become the protean sound of rock 'n' roll.

The rock 'n' roll era took its toll on the older R&B musicians and, though he toured into the early 1960s, the end of the decade found Dixon fading from the limelight. He made a significant comeback in 1975 with a European tour, and in the following decade he was commissioned to write a blues song for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

The next decade found more success as he won the 1997 W.C. Handy award for comeback blues album of the year for "Wake Up and Live!," a concert recording that veered from the ribald "450 Pound Woman," his famous old tune "Hey Bartender" and the forlorn "Don't Send Me No Flowers in the Graveyard." The album was hailed by reviewers as a late-career declaration of self-worth. Last year, Dixon recorded with fellow piano heroes Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray for an album scheduled to be released this fall by HighJohn Records.

Bruce Iglauer, president of the blues music label Alligator Records, which released "Wake Up and Live!," said Dixon's hits from the 1950s did not earn the man a lasting memory with the public, but that for students of the tributaries of American pop, he was a notable figure.

"All that music came together and he was right at that pivot point," Iglauer said Thursday.

Iglauer said Dixon never flashed the bitterness of a maestro who had felt cheated of his rightful spotlight.

"He simultaneously knew that he was a quite an important figure in music, but he was also a somewhat neglected one," Iglauer said. "But he felt he had a good life and a good time in life. He was very gentle and jolly. He liked being the life of the party."

Dixon, who never married, is survived by two first cousins, Marie Banks of Los Angeles and Mary Dixon of Marshall, Texas.

There will be a public memorial service from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday at Grace Chapel on the grounds of Inglewood Park Cemetery at 720 E. Florence Ave.

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