“I BUNCHED ‘EM”—My favorite authentic bluesman story
Willie Dixon was the first real bluesman I ever saw live. I was thirteen years old, infatuated with the guitar, and living life as an uncoordinated, gangly teenager in the country outside Columbia, Missouri.
By the time I was thirteen, I was doing my own radio show on public station KOPN in Columbia, where a great man named Bill Wax mentored me on music (don’t be too impressed about having my own show, it was public radio, after all, and I followed “The Puppet Lady,” who was a woman who, indeed, performed puppet shows…on the RADIO).
Bill Wax, at the time Music Director for KOPN, was one of many obsessed music freaks (and I mean this as the highest compliment) that I have had the pleasure of knowing in my lifetime. Listening to his own show on KOPN, I vividly remember the first time I ever heard Louis Jordan—on a two-hour special dedicated to Jordan’s music. Thinking about this now, it boggles the mind—who dedicates a two hour timeslot to Louis Jordan in the wilderness days of the early 1980s? The answer: A lunatic like Bill Wax.
Bill turned me on to blues music. I had a negative image of blues at the time, because I hated (and still hate) eternal jams of soulless, wanking blues music created by white people. You know, the type of blues music that actually sells millions of albums. I thought that blues music was something that hairy hippies did to torture people.
My first guitar teacher was one of those guys, a Carlos Santana-look-alike that grimaced and made faces as he played solo after endless solo, apparently feeling some sort of soulful catharsis that did not provoke the same emotions in me. In fact, his blues soloing made me dream about killing him, so that I would never have to hear his guitar playing ever again. When he told me that I had to quit listening to Buddy Holly if I ever wanted to get any better on the guitar, I promptly quit taking guitar lessons (and I still love Buddy Holly).
Bill Wax convinced me, a jaded 13-year old snot-nosed rockabilly kid, that real black blues music was “the shit,” to use his term. He turned me on to lowdown guys like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James, as well as uptown guys like Louis Jordan and Bobby “Blue” Bland. I still remember hearing Howlin’ Wolf sing for the first time. It scared the hell out of me, it sounded violent and wicked and like a scream set to music. That was the moment when I knew that Howlin’ Wolf, despite record sales and monetary compensation that would indicate otherwise, was one million times greater than Eric Clapton or his ilk ever could be or would be.
I remember being in the KOPN broadcast studio in early 1983, when Bill Wax told me that Willie Dixon was coming to town, and that I needed to figure out a way to go see him play. I didn’t know who Willie Dixon was at the time, but I was given the two-dollar history that day at the studio, and I’ve spent the last thirty years learning about the rest of Willie Dixon’s story.
Willie Dixon is best known as blues music’s greatest songwriter. His pen is responsible for such classics as “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Hoochie Koochie Man,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” and even Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (which Willie had to sue to get paid for—in the end Led Zeppelin settled out of court in Willie’s favor).
Willie Dixon was also one of the greatest acoustic slap-bass players of all time. He played bass for all the people that recorded at Chess Studios—not just the blues guys that you would expect, but also rock and roll artists, including the classic recordings of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. His bass playing skills went back to the 1940s and early 1950s when he was a member of the Big Three Trio, and his scary slap-bass solo on “Hard Notch Boogie Beat” is a tour-de-force that modern slap-bass players use as the benchmark of slap bass acrobatics.
Willie also produced records at Chess, something that went unaccredited back in the day. Many of the classic recordings made at Chess sounded the way they did because of Willie’s arranging skills, or his advice on how things should be done. The Chess Brothers paid Willie, but nothing like what he should have been paid for the influence he had on these million-selling records. In the end, Willie Dixon had the last laugh—long after the Chess empire had gone bankrupt, Willie Dixon’s estate bought the former Chess studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and turned the place into a museum run by Willie’s family.
When I found out about Willie Dixon coming to town, I begged my dad to take me to the Blue Note to see the show. The legal age to get into the club was twenty-one. There was no way I could go. I begged and begged and cajoled and pleaded. Somehow or another, through Bill Wax and a few other people in town that liked me, my dad talked the owners of the Blue Note (Phil Costello and Richard King) into letting me into the club to see the show, as a sort of “cultural education” project. I remember hearing my dad talking on the phone, promising Costello that he would personally watch me and make sure I didn’t drink.
The Blue Note is still there, in my hometown, and it is still the premier live music venue in one of the biggest college towns in the Midwest (the University of Missouri has its primary campus in Columbia). Today the Blue Note occupies a huge converted movie theater in downtown Columbia, where a thousand people can come to see national headlining acts. Back in the early 1980s, however, the club occupied a spot in a seedy strip along the Business Loop, in a sweat-and-beer-infused cinderblock room that held 250 people on a really good night.
The Blue Note was part of a long established “chittlin’ circuit” that slowly evolved into a “college circuit” as time went by. The circuit roughly went from Chicago to St. Louis to Columbia to Kansas City to Lincoln and/or Omaha, down to Tulsa, Oklahoma City and then Texas. This particular circuit must have started back in the days when the highway system was first evolving, and then it turned into a “follow the money” situation where a lot of live acts played that route because of the lucrative college gigs in each of these towns. When I was first going to shows in the 1980s, it was interesting to see old blues guys obviously playing the same towns on what was their old “chittlin’ circuit,” in the same week that a new upstart band like R.E.M. or The Replacements was playing at the same club.
Most people would qualify the original Blue Note as a ‘dive,’ but to a 13-year old kid with stars in his eyes, it was a magical palace of wonderment. My dad parked his car in the large gravel parking lot, and we went inside and sat at a wobbly table on duct-tape covered vinyl seats. After hearing the “grownups” at the radio station talk about the Blue Note for the better part of a year, I couldn’t believe I was actually inside the place, getting ready to hear live music! By god, I was excited.
The opening act was a local blues act called The Bel-Airs, who, like the Blue Note nightclub, are still around today. Led by two brothers, Dave and Dick Pruitt, the Bel-Airs were white guys, but they weren’t hippie blues wankers. I would eventually see the Bel-Airs hundreds of times, but this was my first time seeing them live in person. They were great, covering vintage blues songs, mixing it up with a few rockabilly classics like Warren Smith’s “Uranium Rock” and even a little soul with Joe Tex’ “Show Me.” I was floored at what I was seeing.
When it came time for the main event, I quickly learned a thing or two about legendary bluesmen. First of all, most of them are so burnt at how they were ripped off back in the day, that they play incredibly short sets. To accomplish this and still get paid by the club owner, they bring a band that performs a warm-up set, which in blues parlance is “killing time.” Willie’s band (and I apologize if any of them are reading this) was so completely unmemorable that I have no memory of what they played. All I remember is that I wanted to see Willie Dixon, and they were keeping me from seeing Willie Dixon, and it was way past my usual 8th-grade bedtime.
I was lucky enough to see many of the great bluesmen (and blues women) at the Blue Note club growing up in Columbia. I saw John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Buddy Guy, Johnny Copeland, and many more during this era. Most of them followed the same formula—a half-baked “warm-up” set by the backing band, followed by the bluesman doing a short set of classics with one or two songs from the inevitable “new album,” and then a strong-armed, grifter-esque hustle to buy their incredibly overpriced merchandise after the show.
My one personal interaction with John Lee Hooker involved him refusing to sign a poster I’d removed from the wall for the Blue Note gig. He refused because I hadn’t bought anything from his merchandise stall. When I opened my wallet and showed him that this little punk-ass white kid literally had no money in his wallet, John Lee Hooker growled at me like an caged lion, angrily grabbed my poster and ‘wrote’ a slash mark across it, as if he were a pissed-off drug dealer in a hurry to get to his second job as a pimp. If I recall correctly, John Lee Hooker was selling cassette tapes at his show for twenty dollars—TWENTY DOLLARS—in an era where they usually retailed for five. I think my defaced poster (which I still own) and the story I’ve been telling for thirty years was a much better bargain in the long run. I’ll never forget getting the crap scared out of me by John Lee Hooker, that’s for sure!
When Willie Dixon finally took the stage that night, I was floored. I was dumbfounded. Here was the guy who wrote all those songs, the guy who played bass on all those records, a real honest-to-god hall-of-fame legend, ten feet in front of me. He was old! He was black! He was incredibly overweight! He was slapping the upright bass! It was everything that a 13-year old nerdy music-obsessed kid could hope for. When he spoke on the microphone, the whole club got whisper-silent. That was when I understood respect. Willie Dixon commanded and received ultimate respect.
That night was the first time I went to a nightclub and saw live music. In retrospect, seeing Willie Dixon as an introduction to live music was an incredibly lucky break. From that moment on, I couldn’t get enough. I discovered that even though I was 13 years old, I was six feet tall and the front door guy didn’t check ID’s. After a while, everybody at the Blue Note knew me anyway, and most of the time I was waved in without having to pay. I was incredibly blessed and fortunate to grow up seeing blues, country music, rock and roll, punk rock, soul, jazz, and just about any other form of music you could imagine. I can’t imagine how different my life would have turned out without the musical education afforded me by the Blue Note.
As my own musical career began, Phil Costello and Richard King gave my youthful bands experience when no one else would (kudos must also go to Johnny Hodges, the guy who ran a club in town called “Shattered”). Thirty-some years later, Richard King still owns the Blue Note, and still supports my career, booking me when I come back through Columbia.
I will always be grateful for the support I received during those early days—I’m not sure that many of the other jaded club owners across the country realize that they’re fostering the next generation of musicians when they’re dealing with teenage snot-nosed punks trying to play their clubs with their amateurish young bands.
What’s that, you say? The Willie Dixon story promised at the beginning of this rambling trip down Memory Lane? Yes, let’s wrap up this tale with a Willie Dixon anecdote that still ranks as my favorite bluesman story of all time.
Dick Pruitt of the Bel-Airs told me this story about Willie decades after the fact. The Bel-Airs were doing a run of shows as the opening act for Willie, and on the same tour after I saw them and Willie play at the Blue Note, they played at a club in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The club in Lincoln had put the Bel-Airs and Willie Dixon and his band in a dive motel. For a blues legend like Willie Dixon, it was an insult, but undoubtedly it was like thousands of other substandard hotel rooms he had stayed in during his long career.
Dick remembers that their band hotel room was full of flies. Not just a couple flies buzzing around, but an outright fly infestation. He couldn’t stand hanging out in the room, so he was walking around outside, and decided to pay Willie a visit. Willie let Dick into his room, and they were talking about the tour, and how the shows were going.
Dick Pruitt then noticed that Willie’s room was free of the flies that had infested their room several doors down. When asked how come Willie’s room didn’t have the flies buzzing around like theirs did, Willie Dixon had a perfectly reasonable reply:
“I bunched ‘em,” replied Willie, in his trademark, throaty, deep bluesman voice.
Unsure of what this meant, Dick looked around the room. In the far corner of Willie Dixon’s motel room was a large pile of human crap, covered with flies.
That, to me, will always be what the blues are all about.
Below: A newspaper article from the Columbia Daily Tribune following Willie's appearance at the Blue Note, May 2, 1983.