Big Head Blues Club to honor blues legend Willie Dixon at Morristown show

MUSIC

WHO: Big Head Blues Club featuring Big Head Todd and the Monsters performing the songs of Willie Dixon.

WHAT: Blues.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

WHERE: Mayo Performing Arts Center, 100 South St., Morristown; or mayoarts.org.

HOW MUCH: $29 to $59.

MORE INFO: bigheadtodd.

The blues have had a huge impact on Todd Mohr‘s life and career. Now, the Big Head Todd and the Monsters singer-guitarist is returning the favor by looking to bring recognition to one of his favorite bluesmen.

The Big Head Blues Club, which features blues-based rockers Big Head Todd and the Monsters and several veteran blues musicians, is honoring the late Willie Dixon with “Way Down Inside,” an album of his songs. Dixon, a prolific songwriter, is known as a key architect of the Chicago blues sound that was hugely influential on rock-and-roll.

“Willie Dixon encapsulates and is the culmination of Chicago blues and a representative of blues music generally,” Mohr said. “This album is so special to me, and I couldn‘t be more proud of it. I‘m excited to be able to tell more people about Willie Dixon with this project.”

The Big Head Blues Club will perform a Dixon revue on Tuesday in Morristown. Compact discs of “Way Down Inside” will be available for purchase at the show. The album is also available digitally, and a national release is scheduled for next year. There are plenty of Dixon songs for the Blues Club to choose from for the concert — he wrote or co-wrote more than 500.

In addition to Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the Blues Club includes harmonica player-singer Billy Branch, who performed in Dixon‘s band, singer Mud Morganfield (Muddy Waters‘ eldest son) and singer-guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks (son of Chicago blues luminary Lonnie Brooks). Singer Erica Brown also performs on “Way Down Inside” and is part of the touring ensemble.

The album features 13 Dixon classics and lesser-known gems. Highlights include the brawny “You Need Love,” the slinky “Same Thing,” the rollicking “Pretty Thing” and the questioning “It Don‘t Make Sense (You Can‘t Make Peace).”

Recording “Way Down Inside” was an electrifying experience and especially emotional for Branch and Morganfield (Muddy Waters sang dozens of Dixon songs), said Mohr, who co-produced the album.

“The process for them was very cathartic and a powerful thing for all of us,” he said. “They‘ve lived a life in blues music. It was very heartening to be in a session where we could make the songs shine.”

Dixon, who has been hailed as the “poet laureate of the blues,” is best known for creating, alongside Muddy Waters, the post-World War II Chicago blues sound. The gritty, distinct form of the genre was influenced by its urban environment and is a touchstone of contemporary blues and rock-and-roll.

Many Chicago bluesmen were southern transplants. Dixon, a Mississippi native, headed north in 1936 at age 21. He died in 1992 at 76. Though he played guitar and upright bass, Dixon was primarily a songwriter. His material was initially performed by contemporaries like Muddy Waters, Howlin‘ Wolf and Buddy Guy.

“He tends to get overlooked because so much of what he did was behind the scenes,” Mohr said. “But he was definitely one of the most important songwriters in American music.”

His songs, though not Dixon himself, later gained widespread popularity when dozens of big-name rock acts covered his material. Led Zeppelin performed “I Can‘t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me.” They also incorporated parts of “You Need Love” into the all-time hard rock classic “Whole Lotta Love,” without crediting Dixon.

Many blues artists of the time saw their work co-opted by white musicians as their own. This led Dixon to spearhead a movement to secure copyrights and royalties for exploited blues musicians. He reached an out-of-court settlement with Led Zeppelin in 1987 after suing them for plagiarism for their use of “You Need Love” and “Bring It on Home” without acknowledgement.

Other Dixon tracks covered in full or in part by major rockers include “Third Degree” (Eric Clapton), “I Ain‘t Superstitious” (Jeff Beck), “Little Red Rooster” (the Rolling Stones), “Spoonful” (Cream) and “Backdoor Man” (the Doors).

Mohr created the Big Head Blues Club in 2011. Their first project, “100 Years of Robert Johnson,” was released that year.

He said the blues is especially relevant given current societal divisions on any number of issues. “When I was growing up being American meant part of being a melting pot, and the blues story really was an emblem of that,” he said. “Putting on this show at this time is a very healing thing.”