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Black History: Freddie Dixon Interview

“The Blues is our culture, it’s a way of life. Our children need to know where they come from, where we came from. The Blues was a form of expression of pain and joy that we needed to bring us out of the situation we were in."


By Peter M. Hurley

Willie Dixon and the Chicago Blues All Stars:

L to R. Freddie, John Watkins, Butch Dixon, Willie Dixon, Billy Branch, Jimmy Tillman


BLUES AND FAITH: FREDDIE DIXON INTERVIEW

 

The Second Son of the Seventh Son, Freddie Dixon, is in a talkative mood. “Ask me anything,” he says. And a challenge to ask him “something I’ve never been asked” is thrown down. As Willie Dixon’s bass playing son, Freddie, indeed, has been asked a myriad of questions over many, many years. He began playing in his father’s band in 1969 and since the senior Dixon’s passing in 1992, he has remained musically active to this day. That’s 55 years under the burning Blues spotlight and 55 years of answering questions.


            Freddie James Dixon was born in 1950 to Elnora Franklin and poet laureate of the Blues, Willie Dixon; one of seven. Freddie recalls, “I remember back when I was about three or four. My first memories are going to the music hall, the union hall with my father over at 40th and State. And then there were the days the coal companies came in with their trucks and musicians gathered around while people filled up their bins to take home for heating.” He continues, “As for music learned at home, everyone can tell a Dixon if they know how to play ‘How Long Blues’ by Leroy Carr. Everyone in our family was taught that by my father. We all know that song,” he laughs.


            “The musicians that came through our house for jam sessions were many, as you can imagine. Little Walter was a regular, the guitar playing John Henry Barber was there. Sunnyland Slim and Memphis Slim would be there. Little Brother Montgomery, he was one of my favorite guys; a barrel house pianist, he had a little derby on his head; always getting tore up but he could play that piano. He was my father’s favorite musician. Little Brother played on those trucks back in Mississippi during my father’s childhood and my father would run behind them to hear him so he could learn how to play. Eventually they both ended up in Chicago. All those guys’d gather right in the living room. You’d go to sleep if you could but I never wanted to sleep, I’d be listening to that music.”


“The kids in the neighborhood would gravitate to our house cuz they knew there’d be some great sounds. One time, during the early British Invasion days, some white boys came by: Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Well, a little girl named Bankses was standin’ out front and thought sure they was the Beatles and began singin’ ‘We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah!’ at ‘em,” He laughs at the memory.  


“Sonny Boy Williamson was another of my favorites. He had a way of poppin’ a knife outta his pocket. That used to amaze me, I never will forget that. Old Sonny Boy. I never saw him in ‘street clothes,’ so to speak. Always dressed. All of those guys would wear suits and hats.” Dressing sharp was a custom not lost on Freddie, for he is one of the most dapper players on the scene today. “It comes with the legacy,” he says matter-of-factly.


            “This music is the greatest business you could ever get into. When I was kid, my favorite subject was Geography. And I used to study the maps and I’d say ‘I’m gonna go here, here, and here’ but I didn’t quite know how. But now I’ve been to practically all of them. About every country in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Mexico--- by the grace of God and music.  



Photo: by Peter Hurley


Early on, something happened to me that changed my whole life. I was sittin’ in the studio, The Blues Factory, when I was about 18 years old where my father was recording a demo. And he was getting ready to go over to Europe. He came in with a bass guitar and he told me sternly ‘Whatever you do, don’t you touch that guitar.’ Freddie pauses for dramatic effect… “and-I-couldn’t-wait,” he laughs heartily. “And he knew what he was doing! You know, I practiced every day on that bass and was ready when he came back from Europe. In about two months! He came in and asked Jimmy from the shipping dept., ‘I got this gig and who is gonna play bass?’ Jimmy said ‘Freddie.’ My dad said, ‘Freddie can’t play bass.’ But, sure enough, by then I could. Just enough at that point. So that’s how I joined Willie Dixon and The Chicago Blues All Stars. Once I played my first gig with him I got $25 and I was hooked. That started me on this road that I’m on now, 55 years later.”


            Freddie’s role was minor initially but, over time, he evolved as a leader. “When I was first in my father’s band, I was shy and stood behind the drummer. Slowly, I moved closer to the front. My father said, ‘I want you to learn these songs, the way I’m singing them. Just sing along with me.’ That’s how I learned. Eventually, I was emceeing the show and that gave me more confidence.”


             Life on the road was arduous but there was plenty of work with Willie Dixon. Freddie remembers his first tour to this day: “First gig was in Omaha, Nebraska. Then Salt Lake City, California, up the coast to Canada, all over Canada. We ended up in Vancouver and Victoria, then we came back down.”


Freddie leans back in his chair, “The musicians would travel in a van but my father would drive his own Cadillac, he’d put all those miles in behind the wheel himself.” The road could be treacherous,” he shakes his head. Especially in wintertime you don’t want to be out there.” But one thing my father told me he said, ‘Always take your time. You don’t want to be rushing to no gig. You can always get another gig. If you’re too tired, pull over. It’s not worth risking your life for. I’m as professional as any musician there is, but I adhere to that philosophy today.”


A fork that Freddie took from this road to another was joining another band so he could play locally when Willie Dixon and the All Stars were not touring. Called the Sons of the Blues, the unit consisted of gifted prodigies of post-war masters Willie Dixon and Carey Bell: Freddie on bass and Lurrie Bell on guitar, and protégé of Jr. Wells, Billy Branch on harmonica. “I never will forget our first big concert. Took place at the University of Chicago. I met the folk singer and Civil Rights activist Odetta there. I had heard so much about her and I was honored to meet her. She liked what we were doing and that meant a lot to me,” Freddie enthuses. “Our true workshop was The Checkerboard Lounge, when Buddy Guy owned it. That’s where me, Billy and Lurrie really got our chops together. Played there every Monday night for years.”





Photo: by Peter Hurley


Dixon’s musical path continued, went various ways and time marched on. “After my father died and the All Stars dissolved and I was no longer with the Sons, I went and got a job at an Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy Store,” he continues. “My hours were flexible enough for me to continue making music here and there, picking up gigs with our former All Stars drummer Jimmy Tillman when we could, while building up a pension and social security which subsidizes me enough me so I could go back into music full-time. It’s not much but it helps.” Freddie recites the professional musician’s lament. “A musician can never fully retire because what’s he going to retire on? He or she is usually in bad shape. I thank God, I did pursue work outside of music to help me with where I am today.”


Fast forward from this period, to the 2015 Willie Dixon Centennial Tribute at Chicago Blues Fest. “Well, that’s when our old All Stars guitarist John Watkins came back to perform with us. Yeah, back from Detroit where he had migrated after the band broke up when my father passed. Things clicked again between me, Jimmy Tillman and John so we decided to reform. We went out as The Original Chicago Blues All Stars and based the band on a shared vision of mentoring young musicians in the history, playing styles, high level of musicianship and professionalism of our own mentors. That was our official goal and, I must say, we did pull a few youngsters along.”



L to R: Freddie Dixon, John Watkins, Jimmy Tillman/ photo: Peter Hurley


 “We had a good long residency for our friend Bob Lassandrello’s Motor Row Brewing club down on S. State St. Those were some good days. We released a cd of a live gig called “Gold” that we recorded back in Portland in 1984 through Michael Frank’s Earwig label. It includes a new song that Jimmy Tillman wrote, a chilling contemporary blues called “Black Bags,”  sung by the youngster in our band, Michael Damani. A lot of people started coming out and supporting us. We were known to invite professional and amateur musicians alike to join us frequently. From all our collective years of playing, we knew just about every Blues star in town.” The list of guests included a Who’s Who of great Blues artists. Syl Johnson, John’s uncle through marriage, sang at John’s birthday celebration. Odie Payne III, Holle Thee Maxwell, B.B. King’s daughter Shirley King, Freddie’s niece Tomiko Dixon, Freddie’s late brother Bobby Dixon, Andre Taylor and Eddie Shaw came by. Mary Lane, Sam Lay and Tracee Adams graced the stage. Another frequent guest was Maurice John Vaughn with whom Dixon and Watkins teamed for a double cd titled 3By3, which includes both originals and the band’s spin on some Willie Dixon classics for info CLICK HERE


L to R: Jimmy Tillman, Jimmy Johnson (with award),

Freddie Dixon, John Watkins at Motor Row


Freddie is now the leader of his own band which features an eclectic mix of players from varying musical genres. “I love the band I’m in now called the Freddie Dixon Blues Band, the first under my name. It’s an interesting mix of Blues and Classical music,” he explains. “Everybody gets along and loves to rehearse and it’s altogether new. We’re combining Blues with a touch of Classical music in a small band format. It’s crazy. I’m the bass-playing leader and I’m black, Judy Lei, our classically trained violinist and featured artist, is Chinese. Tom Stober is a Native American guitarist of Lakota origin. Guitarist Bob Lassandrello is Italian, and our drummer, Grant Niebergall, is--- well, I don’t know what he is,” he chuckles. “But it’s a beautiful thing. Grant owns and operates a multiplex music company, Elliott Grant Drum Shop, in South Holland, IL where we practice frequently in their rentable rehearsal space. Check ‘em out, they’ve got everything.” https://elliottgrantdrumshop.com/


Freddie Dixon Band

“We’re booking festivals and looking forward to traveling this year. And I got one place I still want to go: China. I’ve been working on putting together a video to go along with our EPK to send to bookers over there and I think it’s going to happen.” He cracks a smile” You know, as big as this world is, it’s not as big as you think it is. They say we’re only six degrees of separation from knowing everybody in the world and I believe that. Because I know people from all over the world that know folks that I know and it keeps connecting like that. And, like I said, I love this band, we’re in it for the long haul. We have a together musical entity now to continue my goal of visiting more places that I dreamed about as a kid."



Freddie sits back. “You know, my father’s whole thing was to see that our music was played in prime time like other music. He wanted the Blues to be known for what it’s worth. He’d say the Blues was the most important music in the world. If we don’t have it today, we won’t have it tomorrow. Everyone can relate to the Blues at some point so why is it kept on the shelf for only late-night broadcasts, if that? I play to continue Willie Dixon’s legacy and spread the word of all the great Bluesmen and women before me. We wouldn’t be here if not for them, we’re standing on their shoulders.”


In addition to his abundance of musical activities, Freddie Dixon is a deacon and active at the 1st Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church at 7500 S. Halsted. A man of good will, he’s as devoted to the Blues art form as his faith. “Belief in God and the Blues is very powerful. I think it got our people as far as we are today. Though we need to come further,” he adds. “The Blues is expression and communication and Faith is hope. Without them, we get bogged down. As for me, I just want to play my music, praise the Lord and go to church. And that’s not too much to ask for,” he asserts simply.


Though a question that he’s “never heard before” never seemed to quite materialize, Freddie Dixon covers a wide swathe of ground when opening his heart and mind about the things and people he loves most. “The Blues is our culture, it’s a way of life. Our children need to know where they come from, where we came from. The Blues was a form of expression of pain and joy that we needed to bring us out of the situation we were in. If I can pass that message along and expose more people to it, I’ve done my job and paid tribute to my father. Both my earthly father and the Heavenly Father.”


For more information on the Freddie Dixon Blues Band, including news of upcoming gigs, check out: https://freddiedixonbluesband.com/

 

About the Author: Peter M. Hurley is a photographer/writer/artist whose interest in Blues began as a young boy upon first hearing the distinctive and haunting Chess Records sound of Bo Diddley. Exposure to Little Walter, Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf in later years led him to further discover more Blues originators. After many years as an artist, Mr. Hurley shifted his visual focus, bringing his painterly sensibilities to the art of photographing musicians in the throes of performance on Chicago Blues stages. Combining music and visual art goes to the heart of what he had felt growing up with rock 'n roll and then discovering its source: the Blues. 

 

      


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