Thanks to the legal battle Marie Dixon fought on behalf of her husband musician Willie Dixon, the rights to some of the greatest blues songs ever written remain in the family.
Mrs. Dixon, 79, died Sunday at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields, according to her family, who said she had cancer, diabetes and other health problems.
Her late husband wrote, produced and arranged such blues standards as “Little Red Rooster,” “Back Door Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Spoonful” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” They’ve been recorded by musicians including the Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Cyndi Lauper, Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan, the Doors and Fleetwood Mac.
Late in life, wanting to win back his song rights and royalties, Dixon told his wife, “ ‘I’m sick, and you have to fight,’ ’’ according to their grandson, Alex Dixon. After a court battle with a manager, the Dixons paid him a settlement and won back the catalogue.
“That’s how we were able to keep everything,” Alex Dixon said. “We’re probably one of the only [blues] families from that era who were able to keep everything. That’s going to be her legacy.”
Sugar Blue, the renowned harmonica player, called Mrs. Dixon the “First Lady of the Blues.”
“Thank you for all these years of unconditional support,” he said on Facebook. “I have loved you like a mother Mrs Marie Dixon. . . . I, my family and all the blues community will miss you incredibly.”
After Willie Dixon died in 1992, the bluesman’s widow bought the building where he used to write and record: the famed Chess Records headquarters at 2120 S. Michigan Ave., which became the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. The foundation has worked with other songwriters and artists to obtain royalties.
“That’s why the foundation is so important to the world,” Marie Dixon told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1995. “We’re saying that everyone can have a piece of the pie. We want to enlighten people as to the business side of it. We ask artists to have an attorney to review that contract, watch for renewal of copyright to make sure the songs don’t fall into public domain, instruct them in creating their own publishing company and get somebody to administer it, and that there are checks and balances for all legal situations.”
One of her favorite blues artists was John Lee Hooker. Around 1980, when her grandson was about 5 years old, he complained about her constantly playing Hooker’s music in their Chevy Caprice.
“She stopped the car and kicked me out and said, ‘This car was bought by the blues. Get out until you respect the blues,’ ” he remembers her saying.
Mrs. Dixon drove away just a few feet, then stopped to let her grandson back in. He promptly told her, “I love John Lee Hooker.”
She was one of 14 children born to Fred and Amelia Booker in Oxford, Miss.. She studied nursing at the Oxford Training School before moving at 16 to Chicago to live with a relative.
She worked at a dimestore near the famed 708 Club, at 708 E. 47th St., where, around 1954, she saw Willie Dixon perform. Their grandson said that, after that, “He was going to the store to talk to her. I think he came to that store every day.”
She was only around 18, though, and Willie Dixon was about 40.
“I think she didn’t want an old guy,” their grandson said.
But the musician’s kindness and persistence won her over, and, at 19, she married him. They had five children. One of her great heartaches was that only one, Jacqueline, is still alive. The others died from car accidents, illness and, in one case, drowning, according to Alex Dixon.
Blues great Koko Taylor was one of Mrs. Dixon’s best friends. In the 1960s, before the kind of scrutiny spawned by the 9/11 attacks, Mrs. Dixon was supposed to take a road test for her driver’s license but was too nervous.
“Grandma drove her, and [Taylor] pretended she was Marie to get her driving test,” Alex Dixon said.
Around 1984, the Dixons moved to California, buying a house in Glendale. But they kept a Chicago-area residence, too.
Wherever they lived, hungry musicians would come by, and she’d feed them homemade cornbread and greens, perfectly seasoned with a ham hock.
“Every entertainer you can imagine has eaten her cooking,” her grandson said. “B.B. King, Albert King, Little Brother Montgomery, Sugar Blue, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy.”
Mrs. Dixon is also survived by nine other grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A memorial with photos, poems and a blues jam is planned 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, 930 E. 50th St. A wake, gospel performances and funeral service will take place 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at PUSH.