Willie Dixon - vocals, upright bass; Walter Horton - harmonica; Buster Benton - guitar, vocals; Lafayette Leake- piano; Frank Swann - drums
With well over 500 songs to his credit, many of them classics, Willie Dixon is certainly one of the towering figures in the creation and development of Chicago blues. Hailing from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dixon began performing and writing songs at a young age, influenced by gospel, country, and western, as well as the Delta blues of his home state. Relocating to Chicago in 1936, Dixon gained valuable experience performing with various local groups for well over a decade. He would find his niche at Chess Records, where in 1951 he began serving multiple duties as a staff musician, in-house songwriter, and as a recording artist. Before long, Dixon found himself producing, arranging, and serving as bass player on sessions for Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Sonny Boy Williamson, among others. Dixon's impressive list of songwriting credits from this era includes many classics, including "Hoochie Coochie Man," "I'm Ready," and "I Just Want to Make Love For You" (Muddy Waters); "Back Door Man," "Spoonful," and "I Ain't Superstitious" (Howlin' Wolf), "My Babe" (Little Walter); and "Wang Dang Doodle" (Koko Taylor), to name but a few examples. For several years toward the end of that decade, Dixon left Chess to work directly with artists affiliated with the Cobra label, including up and comers like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam. Returning to Chess in 1959 as a recording artist, he would also continue to write and produce many of the greatest blues offerings of the 1960s, including a highly influential series of duet albums with Memphis Slim.
Serving as a crucial link between the blues and rock and roll, Dixon's contributions as a bandleader were equally impressive. He began more actively pursuing a solo career at the end of the 1960s, for which he assembled a touring band of all-star Chicago session musicians. Although personnel would change frequently, depending on who was available at any given time, this era gave many fans and listeners their first opportunity to catch this now legendary musician performing live, backed by the cream of the crop of Chicago musicians.
This 1972 performance, the first set of two performed that March evening at Los Angeles' intimate Ash Grove, finds Dixon and cohorts relaxed and enjoying themselves before an appreciative audience well versed in the blues. While this rare recording does indeed capture some of the magic that night, it is not without its flaws. Unlike every other Ash Grove recording offered in Wolfgang's so far, these Willie Dixon recordings were not recorded from the on-stage microphones. Rather, these are ambient room recordings done some distance from the stage. Although lacking the definition and clarity of other Ash Grove masters, these recordings still manage to capture a remarkable ensemble in action. For this Ash Grove gig, the group not only includes Dixon and drummer Frank Swann as the rhythm section, but the likes of Buster Benton on lead guitar. As impressive as this already is, it's the other two musicians here that may indeed be the most valuable players on this recording. The truly gifted pianist, Lafayette Leake, plays a central role on all of these performances, often propelling the entire band. Harmonica player extraordinaire, Walter "Shakey" Horton, serves as primary soloist here, delivering one tasty blowout after another. Indeed, Dixon seems compelled to showcase him throughout this set and fans of Horton will be particularly delighted with what's in store.
This first set of the night begins with an instrumental boogie number allowing these musicians to warm up in the process. A relaxed variation on "Train Boogie," this opener has Dixon and Swann anchoring things, while Horton, followed by Benton and then Leake each take an impressive solo turn. Dixon also takes a turn following these three, and in the process gets the audience clapping and hooting along, before they all surge back in together. Dixon next introduces "Shakey" Horton who fronts the group on "Little Boy Blue," a blues based in part on the popular nursery rhyme. Needless to say, it is Horton who serves as "Little Boy Blue," blowing his horn (harmonica, in this case) with distinctive style and flare.
Dixon steps up to the microphone on the next several numbers, beginning with an engaging read on Jimmy Roger's "Walking By Myself," followed by his own "29 Ways" and then "Move Me." The latter song is particularly engaging. Essentially a cover of Big Bill Broonzy's classic "Rock Me, Baby," with additional lyrics by Dixon, "Move Me" throbs along in a much raunchier manner and features impressive accompaniment by all involved. Over the course of these three numbers and especially on "Move Me," it becomes abundantly clear that Walter Horton was a key architect of modern blues harmonica and he continues to cook throughout the remainder of this set.
Another highlight is next as Dixon showcases pianist Lafayette Leak on "Swiss Boogie." Incorporating jazz, blues, boogie, and traditional European elements, this is an extraordinary high-energy workout that dazzles and delights the Ash Grove audience. The recording of this first set ends with the deep swinging grooves of "Crazy For My Baby," which is unfortunately just a taste before the tape stock ran out. While the inherent flaws and lo-fi quality of this recording will likely disappoint all but the most ardent Willie Dixon fans, those appreciative of the musicianship of Lafayette Leake and Walter "Shakey" Horton will find much to enjoy here.
Written by Alan Bershaw