WILLIE DIXON & MEMPHIS SLIM ON THE
ROAD TO NEWPORT
Willie Dixon was a big, easygoing 300-lb. Chicago bluesman out of Mississippi who played a big upright bass and was generally considered one of the best songwriters in the business. He wrote over 500 songs, many of which were made into huge hits by people like Muddy Waters (“I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”), The Rolling Stones (“Little Red Rooster”), Led Zeppelin (“You Shook Me”), The Doors (“Back Door Man”). I was
lucky enough to see him play at Joe’s Place in Cambridge in the early Seventies with Walter “Shaky” Horton on harp and, I believe, Lafayette Leake on piano. Didn’t have that hard edge like Muddy Waters, but that big rolling sound of his just kind of got inside of you and stayed there. In the following interview excerpt, Willie and piano player Memphis Slim head for an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, circa 1959 (Willie refers to the event as the Newport
Jazz Festival). It is taken from my telephone interview with him from his home in Glendale, California on June 1, 1989. He passed three years later at the age of 76.
“When me and Memphis Slim was on our way to Newport, we had this old broke down automobile and was coming from Chicago and we got almost to Cleveland. And when we got almost to Cleveland we looked down and saw this generator hand wasn’t working and we said, man, well, since this generator hand ain’t working we’d better be heading somewhere where we can try to get this thing fixed, but not on the highway, because on the highway it costs too much anyway. We cut off, going in on to Cleveland and just as we started off into Cleveland a little bit the lights started dimming and we raced the motor and nothing would happen. And so we were driving over to where most of the guys played at. So I was driving over there and the thing just conked out, just put-put-put. So we pushed it a block or two. Then all of a sudden we could hear some music. We listened to this music. Slim said, ‘Man, that sounds like Robert Jr. [Lockwood].’ And then all of a sudden, hey, there’s a band playing somewhere down there. On our way down there we was trying to pick out who it was. Come to find out it was Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. I don’t know who the drummer was, but they was playing at some little ole club one night. The guys was on the stage, and after a while when they came off we told the guys, ‘Hey man, we was on our way to New York and ain’t got no money but a little bit, and the car done conked out down there.’ When we said that, Robert Jr. says, ‘Hey man, I got a friend of mine, if it’s not real serious he can fix it.’ And so we got to talking and all the guys came outside and we got to gabbin and talking and goin on. And Elmore said, ‘You guys ain’t got but sixteen dollars. You ain’t got enough to get into New York.’ Elmore said, ‘Oh, hell, I’ll give em some money.’ Elmore had been bragging about how much money he was making there anyway.
They got this mechanic over there and the mechanic said, ‘Oh, man, it’s the distributor.’ And he said, ‘I can fix that…before you guys get off a here. If you got the time.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we ain’t got nothing but time.’ We all went to a restaurant and we starting eating, and Elmore bragging about he had just bought him a place on the West Side of Chicago.
The guy said he wanted twenty-two dollars to fix it. And they said, oh, man, forget it. And this guy said, ‘I got to have my money.’ And so Slim put his and I put mine. Elmore reached into his pocket and said, ‘Look here. I’m going to give you guys twenty dollars.’ [The other guys put in too] and I think altogether we left there in better shape than we were when we left Chicago cause I think we must have had about twenty dollars apiece and we had the car fixed. And gas in the tank. Everything. They made us real welcome. Elmore was that type of guy. He always was trying to do something for somebody.
We went all the way into Newport, Rhode Island. It was one of the first Newport Jazz Festivals. We went on into New York and we recorded on a couple of different labels there. Slim recorded a boogie thing for John Hammond Sr., the old man. Oh yeah, we got Hal Ashby [tenor sax] and a harmonica player, I forget who he was, and me and Memphis Slim and we recorded.…we just made up a bunch of songs and we recorded em. It turned out pretty good.”