11 essential Willie Dixon covers

Willie Dixon with his upright bass and a Fender guitar in the backyard of Muddy Waters' house in Westmont, Illinois on June 21, 1981
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Although you probably don't see too many celebrations of Willie Dixon online, we felt we needed to say something about this incredibly important figure in Chicago blues and rock history.

Dixon, who was born on July 1, 1915, was primarily a bassist and singer (who also played guitar). But he was a bassist and singer who happened to write hundreds of incredible, often dark and eerie songs, several of which found their way into the catalogs of the biggest blues and rock artists of the '60s, '70s, '80s, and beyond.

These include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, Cream (and Eric Clapton), the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Gary Moore, George Thorogood, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf – to name just a few. 

Today we'd like to celebrate Dixon by pointing out 10 noteworthy covers of his songs. In fact, let's make it 11. I say noteworthy, as opposed to best, because there's simply a staggering amount of recordings to consider (live and studio).

Let's just say you can't possibly go wrong with these 11. Note that we've tried to include live versions of the songs, because they're a hell of a lot more fun to watch than audio-only YouTube "videos." Enjoy! P.S.: Dixon died in 1992 at age 76.

Jeff Beck – I Ain't Superstitious

Although Howlin' Wolf recorded this Dixon tune in 1961, most rock fans made its acquaintance when Jeff Beck covered it on his first solo album, Truth, in 1968. 

The song recounts various superstitions, including a black cat crossing the pathway, so Beck imitates the sound of a cat with his guitar and wah pedal. It's just one of a multitude of sounds Beck can coax out of a guitar. That said, if my cats sounded like this, I'd rush them to the all-night animal hospital ASAP. 

This is a live version from 2009, 41 years after it appeared on Truth. Beck even got the original vocalist, Rod Stewart, to sing it. That's Tal Wilkenfeld on bass.

Cream – Spoonful

Just as Crossroads introduced a new generation of music fans to the mystique of Robert Johnson, Cream’s Spoonful brought exposure to Dixon, who wrote the song, and Howlin’ Wolf, who originally recorded it in 1960. And while Howlin’ Wolf’s stark-and-dark version is haunting in its own right, Cream’s take on the song – driven by Eric Clapton’s guitar and Jack Bruce’s heavy bass – moves it several steps further along.

At Cream’s live shows, Spoonful gave the band members plenty of room to stretch out, as can be heard on the nearly 17-minute-long version on Cream’s Wheels of Fire.

Above is another great live version, complete with pro-shot footage of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in action. And just like the second season of F Troop, this video is in color.

Muddy Waters – I Just Want to Make Love to You

Here's a live version of a powerful Dixon number that Muddy Waters made famous. This live version features John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter, Otis Blackwell, Eddie "Bluesman" Kirkland, Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards and Foghat, so you know it was filmed in the Seventies, which it was (1978). Let's not forget the Stones' sped-up version of this song, which is enjoyable in its own British way. 

The Doors – Back Door Man

Back Door Man, a Chicago blues classic, was recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1960 and released in 1961 by Chess Records as the B-side to Wolf's Wang Dang Doodle. The Doors got to it a few years later, including it on their eponymous debut album. Doors drummer John Densmore once said Back Door Man is "deeply sexual and got everyone moving."

Eric Clapton – Third Degree

When Clapton recorded his intense From the Cradle album, which was hailed as his "return to the blues," he was sure to include several Dixon compositions, including this one, which was co-written by Eddie Boyd. 

The other two were Hoochie Coochie Man and the dramatic and greasy Groaning the Blues. Check out this fine mid-Nineties live version of Third Degree featuring Clapton playing a very nice Gibson. We wish he would play this guitar more often. OK, "we" is me. 

Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man

This song was recorded or performed by a huge list of name-brand artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Phish, the New York Dolls, Dixon himself, the Allman Brothers Band and more. But the version belongs to Muddy Waters, who initially recorded it in 1954. It became one of Waters' most popular and identifiable songs and helped secure Dixon's role as Chess Records' chief songwriter.

The Rolling Stones – Little Red Rooster

Can you believe the Stones took this song to Number 1 on the U.K. singles charts in late 1964? I think it's the only time (ever) that a pure blues song has claimed the top spot on the U.K. charts. 

"[This] was [Brian Jones'] masterpiece, his inspired guitar howling like a hound, barking like a dog, crowing like a rooster," said Rolling Stones biographer Stephen Davis. As former Stones bassist Bill Wyman added, "I believe Rooster provided Brian Jones with one of his finest hours."

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Let Me Love You Baby

This upbeat Dixon tune, a highlight of Vaughan's 1989 In Step album, also was covered by Buddy Guy in ancient times. Check out this fan-filmed live version from November 11, 1989, at New York City's Madison Square Garden (it starts at 19:40). I was actually at this show. A drunk guy threw up directly behind me, but my brother and my friend didn't tell me. Good times! 

The Small Faces – You Need Loving

I love including the Small Faces on these lists, because in modern times, they just don't get the love they deserve. I also like what happens at exactly 3:35 in the YouTube player above. Be sure to head to that spot. Does it remind you of anything? Remember it was recorded in 1966. When Dixon wrote this tune, it was called You Need Love. The song was, um, "borrowed" a few times after that.

Led Zeppelin – I Can't Quit You Baby

Here's the powerful, echo-filled Coda version of Dixon's I Can't Quit You Baby as performed by Led Zeppelin. This is actually one of my favorite officially released Led Zeppelin recordings of all time. I love how Jimmy Page intentionally jumps the gun on the turnaround chords because he knew it would sound exciting if he did. And it did.

Buddy Guy – When My Left Eye Jumps

Buddy Guy's version of this Dixon/Al Perkins tune features some great singing and guitar playing. It also includes the line: "When my left eye get to jumpin', and my flesh begin to crawl/I know you got some other mule, that's kickin' in my stall." Genius!

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.