Luther Dixon: Songwriter and producer responsible for a slew of hits including '16 Candles'

Friday 18 December 2009 01:00

The songwriter and record producer Luther Dixon was most associated with the New York all-female group the Shirelles. One of his songs for them, "Boys", became a beat-group standard and its many performers include the Beatles and the Flamin' Groovies. Strangely, none have appreciated that it is really a girls' song or, if they have, they haven't bothered to amend the lyric.

Luther Dixon was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1931, but the family moved to Brooklyn when he was young. In 1954, he joined the doo-wop group the Four Buddies, singing baritone and playing guitar. They had little success but they made several records, also recording as the Barons.

In 1955, the group disbanded but Dixon and the group's leader, Larry Harrison maintained a songwriting partnership. They wrote "Why Baby Why", a million-seller for Pat Boone in 1957. A few months later, Dixon had further success with "Just Born (To Be Your Baby)", written with Billy Dawn Smith and recorded by Perry Como in the US and covered by Jim Dale in the UK.

Billy Dawn Smith had spotted the potential of the New York doo-wop group the Crests, which featured the smooth lead-singing of Johnny Maestro. Working with another songwriting partner, Allyson Khent, Dixon wrote a sentimental birthday ballad, "21 Candles", and gave it to the Crests. The group pointed out that their fans were under 21 so the title was adjusted to "16 Candles" and their record went to No 2 on the US charts in 1958. (The film-maker John Hughes later borrowed the title for his film Sixteen Candles (1984)).

With Khent, Dixon wrote "Lovin' Up A Storm", a tense rocker for Jerry Lee Lewis, but its sales were marred by the controversy surrounding Lewis's private life. With yet another songwriting partner, Don Covay, Dixon wrote "Big Fat Saturday Night" for Gene Vincent and, with Al Smith, he wrote the rhythm'n'blues standard "Big Boss Man" for Jimmy Reed, later recorded by Elvis Presley.

There had been few successful black girl groups before the Shirelles, but such acts now became a permanent feature of the pop charts. The Shirelles themselves had several chart hits, and Dixon wrote, as well as produced, "Mama Said" and "Soldier Boy". Dixon also produced and co-wrote "Baby It's You", using the songwriting pseudonym of Barney Williams. The song was recorded by the Beatles on their first LP. While the Beatles were in Hamburg during 1962, the Shirelles released Dixon's song "Love is a Swingin' Thing". The Beatles returned to Liverpool, having worked it up for their act. The first time they performed it, fans shouted, "That's a Merseybeats' song" as another local band had beaten them to it, and they never performed it again.

Bacharach spotted the potential of one of the backing singers, Dionne Warwick, and made many hit records with her. Dixon wrote and produced her album tracks, "If You See Bill" and "Oh Lord, What Are You Doing To Me". Dixon worked with the soul singer, Chuck Jackson, writing his signature song, "I Don't Want To Cry", and producing "I Wake Up Crying" and "Any Day Now".

Encouraged by Greenberg, Dixon devised ways to make the best use of their material. The label often took backing tracks recorded for one artist and added a different vocalist. Maxine Brown used Dionne Warwick's backing track for "I Cry Alone", while Tommy Hunt's lead vocals can be detected, bleeding through, on some Chuck Jackson recordings.

Outside of Scepter, Dixon wrote "A Hundred Pounds of Clay" for Gene McDaniels. This was typical of the quasi-religious songs of the day and when it was banned by the BBC, Craig Douglas released a modified version and made the UK charts.

In 1962, Bobby Darin made the US charts with Dixon's jaunty "Irresistible You", here the B-side of his top-10 hit, "Multiplication". Less successful was "Parade of Broken Hearts" for Jimmy Justice. The hope of establishing his own label, Ludix, through Capitol Records, was not successful, but Dixon wrote King Curtis's instrumental hit "Soul Serenade" (1964), by which time the Beatles had already included "Boys" on their Please Please Me album of 1963.

In 1966, Dixon transformed the Platters by switching them from heartfelt ballads to disco, and he wrote and produced their hits, "I Love You 1,000 Times" (written with his then wife, the soul singer Inez Foxx, although the marriage later ended in divorce) and "With This Ring".

In October 2009, and only a week before his death, Dixon was nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Spencer Leigh

Luther Dixon, songwriter and producer: born Jacksonville, Florida 7 August 1931; married Inez Foxx (marriage dissolved); died Jacksonville 22 October 2009.

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