HIGH FREQUENCIES: This Dr. is making a house call!
Dr. Dixon looks back- and looks forward to joining the Breeze Kings for a night of blues
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“Over my soon to be 52 years of playing I've been blessed to have performed with the Who's Who of the blues world,” Dr. Dixon, Bh.d, says jubilantly. Indeed, ask the self-described “Blues Physician” (that Bh.d stands for blues harmonica doctor) for a list of who he’s played with, and he throws out names like he’s flipping through a blues encyclopedia. From local legends like “Mr. Frank Edwards, Rev. Pearly Brown, and Roy Dunn to Big Mama Thornton and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, I got to play with them all,” Dixon remembers, continuing with the litany of names he’s shared a stage. “Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Roosevelt Sykes, Johnny Shines, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Cary Bell, and Big Walter Horton, who became my mentor.”
That was just while in the South. When catching a ride to Chicago with the Muddy Waters Band in 1976 to hook up with Big Walter Horton, Dixon was introduced “to everybody! My first night there I was performing with Sunnyland Slim and Willie Mabon!”
Others Davis met and jammed with in the Windy City — yes, the list goes on — include James Cotton, Jr. Wells, Buddy Guy, Homesick James, Floyd Jones, Billy Branch, Big John Wrencher, Magic Slim, the Aces (Little Walter's band), Son Seals, Jimmy Walker, Eddie Taylor, and Koko Taylor.
Having played with and been inspired by so many of the Old Masters, Dixon keeps coming back to one man, Muddy Waters. “The best harmonica players were in his bands!” Dixon exclaims. “There's not a whole lot of harmonica players living now who can say they got to perform with Muddy Waters! I did so many times — in Atlanta and in Chicago, too!”
In 1968, Dixon spent time with Jimi Hendrix, in Atlanta for two shows at the city’s Municipal Auditorium, the guitarist even playing him working tracks from his yet-to-be-released album Electric Ladyland. Dixon remembers him to be “one of the coolest souls I’ve ever met in this lifetime — besides Muddy Waters!"
Dixon was moved to start playing music, just as were countless other locals musicians, inspired by the sounds and the vibes from the free concerts held at Piedmont Park in the late '60s. He remembers the day well.
“It was on a weekend when bands played free there at the kiosk. A band was playing, and in the middle of the song, the guitarist starts playing a harmonica. Hearing it with my heart, a presence came over me as my heart began to radiate, pulsating like the ocean, flowing in and out. And I couldn't move. When the music stopped I knew the sun was not going down without my getting a harmonica! I got on a trolley and went to downtown Atlanta where I remember seeing some harmonicas in the glass counter there.”
Taking one home, he started playing immediately, but it wasn’t until 1972 when the Dr. started performing with Dry Ice (Joel Murphy on guitar, Rodger Gregory on bass, and John Wade on drums) that he became a “professional” musician, that is, that he got paid for doing what he loved.
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Dixon outgrew his sideman position and left Dry Ice to form the first of many versions of Dr. Dixon and the Operators, the initial incarnation with Luther “Houserocker” Johnson in the band. By the ‘80s, he was playing the run of Atlanta clubs — from 688, Margaritaville, and the Little 5 Points Pub to the Moonshadow Saloon and Agora Ballroom. There were no dedicated blues clubs in the city at the time — and the musicians playing in the Operators ran the gamut as well, from bassists like L.T. Jones, drummers Les Brown, Tom Chavers and Mark Geiger, and guitarists Houserocker Johnson, Richard Maniewicz, Bob Rummer, and Bill Taft, who would leave to found the Jody Grind, Smoke, Hubcap City, and, more recently, W8ING4UFOS.
“Atlanta had some great blues bands, and there was so many places to play back then, too,” remembers Dixon, noting that to play the Moonshadow Saloon, “your band was one of Atlanta's best if you were on their stage, because all the national touring, top blues acts played there,” though they fit right in at the more punk and alternative clubs they played, “because we were rockin' them blues hard!”
Playing the harp hasn’t been the only thing occupying Dixon’s time. A prolific artist, he’s well-known for his drawings, many of them portraits of the blues musicians who inspired him. A painting of Muddy Waters he once gave the bluesman as a birthday present hung in Waters’ living room for years. Dixon only discovered its place of prominence when he opened a copy of Waters’ last album, King Bee, and there was a photo on the inner sleeve of Waters at home with his family, with the birthday gift of blue pastels and white acrylic paint hanging on the wall behind them.
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In 1983, Dixon started teaching classes for children with special needs in public schools, a vocation that took him to South Carolina in 1985. It wasn’t until 2001, after he’d moved back to Atlanta, that the blues guitarist Frank Robinson encouraged him to get back on the scene.
“I had a great blues band in 2002 to 2003 with Jacob Holliday, Art Holliday, and Eric Pullin. Sadly we disbanded before we could take off, but we were hot! The Holliday Bros. have made a name for themselves as a group and individual players.”
Since then, Dixon has taken the arsenal of harmonicas he carries with him on stages as small as the one at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack to large out of state blues festivals.
Dixon’s upcoming gig this Saturday, Jan. 6, at the Northside Tavern is part of the Northside Tavern Mentor Series, described on its Facebook page with the quote: “The most experienced members of society have the deepest roots, producing powerful fruit. In this music series we bring that bounty to the table.”
Bringing Dixon to the stage with the Breeze Kings, who’ve held a Thursday night residency at the Northside for years, should prove to be a powerful night of blues
Dixon says he’s jammed with the Breeze Kings, winners of the CL Best of Atlanta Reader’s Poll for 10 years, more than a few times, but that the pairing this weekend will be more than him just sitting in. “They’re one of Atlanta's best and most popular blues bands, for sure,” Dixon notes. “When Carlos Capote, one of this city’s top harp players, asked me to join him and the Breeze Kings for a Mentor Series show, I thought it would be very cool! Things fell into place when Mudcat got in touch with me about doing it.”
The Breeze Kings, too, are excited about playing their first Northside gig of 2018 with the Dr., noting, they “are very happy to be the backup band for one of Atlanta's true blues legends, the great Dr. Dixon. The Dr. has been performing in Atlanta since the 70's and … he hasn't lost a step over the years. His incredible showmanship continues to inspire us to this day.”
While Dixon has never made a living playing the blues, he feels “anything other than a 9-to-5 just to survive in this world is the best for anyone's soul. Doing what you love to do makes the difference, whatever it is. Bringing joy to others playing the blues has always been what it is about for me.”
What keeps him going?
“I live a very quiet, healthy lifestyle, — no drugs, alcohol, red meat, or running the streets. ... Living without hate and anger which, sadly, seems be the call of the day in this world we live in. I still have hope for a better world for all! Having retired in 2008, kindness and helpfulness to others is how I've tried to live by my whole life. I feel when Dr. Dixon, Bh.D, the Blues Physician is operating, it's that same presence that radiated through my heart that Spring day in Piedmont Park that touches everyone that hears my blues, because it is from the source, which is LOVE, that sustains all life, regardless if one chooses to be loving or mean and hateful, love of God, regardless of what name is used, sustains ALL! It's what keeps me going at 70.”
Dr. Willie Dixon, Bh.D plays Northside Tavern on Sat., Jan. 6. $10. 10 p.m. 1058 Howell Mill Rd NW. 404-874-8745.