Floyd Dixon

Jump-blues singer-pianist

Jay Riggins (Floyd Dixon), pianist, singer and songwriter: born Marshall, Texas 8 February 1929; died Orange, California 26 July 2006.

While on tour with the young Ray Charles in 1949, the pianist and singer Floyd Dixon suggested he should move away from sounding like Nat "King" Cole and "try it with more of a gospel flavour". Charles heeded the advice and went on to become a global superstar with "I Got a Woman", "What'd I Say" and "Hit the Road Jack". Dixon never came close to achieving the same level of success but was one of the main exponents of "jump blues", the up-tempo style prevalent on the West Coast of the United States throughout the Forties and Fifties.

He wrote and recorded rhythm'n'blues hits such as "Dallas Blues" (1949), "Telephone Blues" (1951) and "Call Operator 210" (1952) but is probably best known for "Hey Bartender" (1954), which has been covered by Johnny Lee, Koko Taylor, Dan Hicks and the Blues Brothers, the fictional soul duo of Jake and Elwood Blues - a.k.a. the comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

Their version of "Hey Bartender" was included on Briefcase Full of Blues, their 1978 live début album, which went on to sell two million copies and helped the Blues Brothers make the transition from recurrent characters on the Saturday Night Live US television show to a feature-length film released in 1980.

Dixon, who had stopped performing altogether, subsequently enjoyed a new lease of life and toured Europe for the first time. He went on to work with Robert Cray and, in 1996, issued a new album, entitled Wake Up and Live!, which was hailed as the Comeback Album of the Year and won him a W.C. Handy Award. The many sides he recorded for the Modern, Aladdin and Specialty labels were reissued on CD and, in 2005, Dixon released another new album, called Fine! Fine! Thing!. Earlier this year, he recorded a live CD and DVD with two fellow blues pianists, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray.

Born Jay Riggins Jnr in Marshall, Texas, in 1929, he fell under the spell of a barrelhouse piano player nicknamed Roadmaster and began playing the piano and singing. He was self-taught and took in everything from gospel to jazz via jitterbug, swing, rural blues, the boogie-woogie of Amos Milburn and even hillbilly music. In 1942, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother and grandmother and began entering talent contests under the name Floyd Dixon while working as a caddy and in a drug store.

In 1948, he won the Amateur Hour at the Million Dollar Theatre, in front of Charles Brown, another Texan pianist-singer who had relocated to California, made it with hits like "Driftin' Blues" and was actually headlining the event. "That was something. The people just screamed and yelled and laughed, because they thought it was Charles and they didn't know it was me," Dixon told an interviewer in 2004:

I liked Charles Brown's style more than just anybody's. People told me I sounded like that before I even heard him.

Brown was seven years older than Dixon and took him under his wing and, later, even encouraged a partnership with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, his own backing group. Dixon cut his first single, "Dallas Blues", in what he thought was an audition for the Bihari brothers who ran the Modern label, but they recorded him and liked the resulting take so much they decided to issue the track. By March 1949, the song was in the Top Ten Most Played R&B Recordings on Billboard's Jukebox chart.

He released 20 sides on Modern, including "Mississippi Blues" and "It's Getting Foggy", before freelancing for the Supreme and Peacock labels and eventually signing with Aladdin in 1950. While there, he scored some of his biggest successes with "Wine, Wine, Wine", "Tired, Broke and Busted" and "Too Much Jelly Roll", one of the first compositions by the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to be recorded. He moved on to Specialty and then Cat, a subsidiary of the Atlantic label, for whom he cut the raucous "Hey Bartender" in 1954, but even if he could hold his own against the likes of Little Richard - as demonstrated on "Oooh Little Girl" issued by Ebb Records in 1957 - the advent of rock'n'roll seemed to have put an end to his career.

Dixon recorded for a myriad of regional companies throughout the Sixties and early Seventies but eventually moved back to Texas and led a quiet life there.

His 1980 renaissance saw him join his former mentor Charles Brown and the R&B singer Ruth Brown on the European Blues Caravan tour. In 1984, he was commissioned to write a blues song for the Los Angeles Olympics. Equally at ease playing mellow ballads, boogie-woogie instrumentals or risqué songs like "450 Pound Woman" or "Baby Let's Go Down to the Woods", Floyd Dixon had an amazing piano technique, sang in a gritty voice and was a pivotal figure in the creation and evolution of early rhythm'n'blues.

A gentle and jolly man, he dubbed himself "Mr Magnificent" and even recorded a fitting epitaph, "Don't Send Me No Flowers in the Graveyard".

Pierre Perrone

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