When you list the great American songwriters of the 20th centuries, the names would usually include people like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin, and Harry Warren.* But the one name that's overlooked when people try to list the names is Willie Dixon.
Dixon grew up in the Mississippi delta and became interested in music and the blues. He moved to Chicago in 1936 and after an abortive attempt at becoming a boxer, he started performing and writing songs. In the early 50s, he was signed as an act by Chess Records. Though Dixon did record, his greatest influence was a bass player and songwriter.
His songs were first recorded by Chess artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter, but they were listened to by dozens of budding rock and blues musicians, who, when they got recording contracts, played Dixon's songs. Groups like The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, the Allman Brothers Band, George Thorogood, Cream, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees, the Grateful Dead, and many others recorded Dixon's song.
The titles should be familiar to any rock or blues fan: "I Ain't Supersitious," "Back Door Man," "Little Red Rooster," "I Can't Quit You, Babe," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Spoonful," "Wang Dang Doodle," and hundreds of others.
Dixon was instrumental in the success of Chess Records, with his songwriting, bass playing, and production. As that faded, he began organizing and performing in blues festivals in Europe, where British musicians were starting to record his work, too. He was more of a behind-the-scenes guy at this point, but in 1970, he released I Am the Blues, the first time in years he stepped out to be noticed by the public and not just musicians.
Like everyone in the music business, Dixon was screwed out of a lot of his royalties, but as time went on, he was able to win a few lawsuits to get what he deserved**. And the recognition came in, too: he was named to both the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
*If Harry Warren doesn't mean anything to you, it isn't because you don't know his songs: "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "That's Amore," "42nd Street," "Lullaby of Broadway," and many more. I may write about his some day, but for now, go to the Harry Warren webpage.
** Including a couple of plagiarism suits against Led Zeppelin, who are now notorious for taking songs without the proper credit.