Written by John Kessler
Willie Dixon didn’t make his career writing songs about people who behaved themselves, and “Back Door Man” is no exception — it’s about a guy who cheats and then brags about it.
Songs like this were well suited to the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf, who was already a well-established, middle-aged bluesman when he recorded it in 1961.
From a musical point of view the Howlin’ Wolf version is a synthesis of primitive delta blues and a modern approach to syncopation. Remaining on one chord throughout, the instruments play against each other in unexpected rhythms, and angular melodies, creating a sloppy, shambling beat. Here is a rare video clip of Howlin’ Wolf performing “Back Door Man”.
The Doors sound was unique, a swirling mix of rock, jazz and blues anchored by Ray Manzarek’s organ and Jim Morrison’s voice. When they released “Back Door Man” in 1967 they arranged it as a traditional 3 chord blues song, but it still retains their signature dark, hypnotic sound. Here is a 1969 clip of The Doors performing “Back Door Man”:
Although Willie Dixon devoted much of his talent to composing for other singers, he often released his own versions of his songs, showing that he could have been a major performing artist in his own right, had he chosen that path. As it turned out, he was much more influential as a writer and producer for some of the greatest in blues, including Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Koko Taylor. Here is a clip of Willie Dixon performing “Back Door Man” with Stephen Stills on guitar:
A sure sign of a great composition is how it translates to different time periods and different musical adaptations. Modern blues-rocker Dudley Taft gave the song a driving, hard-rock makeover in his 2011 version of the song. Turns out, the subject matter and melody are timeless.
Here are the complete versions of “Back Door Man”