‘Back Door Man’ – good blues is rarely about behaving yourself

Howlin' Wolf
Howlin' Wolf
Howlin’ Wolf

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”

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