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The legacy of Willie Dixon on his 100th birthday

This summer outdoor blues concerts are taking place on a site considered hallowed ground by blues fans.

Next to the legendary Chess Records building on South Michigan Ave. sits Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. Dixon was a prolific songwriter and this is where his songs, like Little Red Rooster, Wang Dang Doodle and Hoochie Coochie Man were recorded by blues stars Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor and Muddy Waters.

Dixon would have turned 100 this year, and to celebrate the foundation is making this The Week of Willie, with concerts around Chicago.

Fellow musicians and fans remember Dixon as a man who was generous with his time and talents.

“He had a good reputation. People loved him,” said his grandson Alex Dixon. “The way he treated his musicians. He was happy the English guys were recording his music.”

Dixon is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and this year was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He became one of the first blues artists to successfully sue to get music royalties owed to him. Early in their careers, he and other blues artists had agreements with record companies that paid them a fraction of what they were owed.​

“It’s got an ugly intersection with race that African American musicians often found themselves taken advantage of,” said Peter DiCola, a professor specializing in copyright law at Northwestern University.

Chicago bluesman Billy Boy Arnold knows this story. He wrote the song “I Wish You Would,” later recorded by Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds.

“The publishing company got 50 percent and we got 50 percent. But they didn’t tell us the significance of the publishing. That’s where the real money was,” said Arnold. “ I never did get the money I was due.”

Stories like Arnold’s inspired Dixon to start the Blues Heaven Foundation. The nonprofit is dedicated to taking care of blues artists and their heirs — the goal is to make sure they’re getting music royalties they’re owed.

Alex Dixon says in many ways, his grandfather was a preservationist. A person who saw the future and worked tirelessly to protect the past of a musical genre.

“He always knew that blues was going to be around,” said Dixon. “He knew we’d have to work extra hard to keep it up.”

And that may be the most important part of Dixon’s legacy, helping keep the blues alive for future generations.

Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews

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