Bluesman Floyd Dixon is given credit for influencing Ray Charles to move away from pop music. He's also said to have encouraged Charles to put more gospel in his music. But Dixon doesn't take any of the credit. Dixon's agent, who also represented Charles, had told him nobody wanted Charles with their band because he was troublesome.
"He wasn't no trouble to me," Dixon says. Traveling to shows together in '51, Charles carried a record player in the car, playing gospel music. "He didn't have a blues record on him."
Not only was Charles no trouble to Dixon, he even helped out with transportation. Dixon remembers Charles as being so self-sufficient that he actually doubted he couldn't see.
"He drove the car one night," Dixon cackles. One early morning, Charles drove the guitar player's car about four or five miles, the band directing him with verbal commands.
"I wouldn't let him drive my car," Dixon says. "I said,'Man, if the police catches us, they'll put all of us in jail.' And all the band just laughed."
When they would arrive at a hotel, Charles just wanted to know the floor and the room. "He'd say, 'Oh yeah, I'll run right up there,' and he'd hop up the stairs and run right down to the room," says Dixon. "He'd stick his hand on the door and feel the numbers. I said, 'Is Ray really, really blind?'"
Dixon sounds like a bluesy Dr. John without the Nawlins accent. But the bluesman is from an earlier time and a different place. Dixon, who penned "Hey Bartender," learned his craft from Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris and T-Bone Walker.
When people said he sounded like Charles Brown, he went to Brown's house and asked his opinion. Brown was impressed enough to give him piano lessons, and he later toured Europe with Dixon in the '80s.
Dixon's string of hits started in the '40s with "Dallas Blues" and peaked in '54 with "Hey Bartender." Koko Taylor's cover is the best-known version, but Dixon says a couple of white boys made him more money with the record. She didn't sell one-twentieth of the records The Blues Brothers sold with 1978's Briefcase Full of Blues.
Dixon dropped out of music in the '70s.
"Decided to take a break and go fishing," he chuckles. "Just stopped."
But he started up again in '75 in the clubs around Venice Beach, playing under an assumed name.
"I had changed my name to El Fox at the time 'cause I didn't want anybody to know me 'cause I was looking like a bum, a beatnik," he says, noting that people got the wrong impression of beatniks. "They really helped everybody, and they really didn't do anything wrong."
Dixon also has a few good words for the Hare Krishnas, who helped Dixon when he was down and out. "When I got my first royalty check for 'Hey Bartender,' I gave them a couple of grand. I said 'I just want y'all to have this 'cause y'all were very nice to me when I was living like that.'"
But Dixon no longer needs assistance. 1997's Wake Up and Live won a W.C. Handy Award for comeback album of the year, and his latest, Fine, Fine Thing, shows the 77-year-old bluesman can still cut it.
Dixon is teaming up with Pinetop Perkins, Henry Gray and Kid Ramos for his next project, a live CD/DVD to be recorded at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix in July.
"We're gonna be doin' stuff from all parts of my career," Dixon says. "We plan on a big thing down there.
Floyd Dixon plays Loafers Beach Club in Raleigh Saturday, April 8 with Big Joe and the Dynaflows. Tickets are $25, which includes free Friday night and Saturday afternoon admission to Loafers' dance party with live DJs and free food.