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Musician Jessy Dixon dies

Jessy Dixhis Crete home 2002. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Jessy Dixon at his Crete home in 2002. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 11, 2011 2:35PM

Jessy Dixon loved the freedom of birds.

When he lived in Crete during the early 2000s he hung dozens of bird feeders in his front yard. The gospel singer-songwriter saw bluebirds, cardinals, meadowlarks and peacocks given to him by his fans. Mr. Dixon died Monday at his Chicago home He was 73.

Mr. Dixon was a rare bird in contemporary gospel circles in that he crossed over to a pop audience most notably as an opening act for singer-songwriter Paul Simon. During the late 1970s he was studio keyboardist at Chess Records, playing behind Fontella Bass and Earth, Wind and Fire. In the early 1960s at Savoy Records, Mr. Dixon played piano while Billy Preston played organ and Dionne Warwick sang backup behind gospel icon the Rev. James Cleveland.

But Mr. Dixon was best known with secular audiences for his collaborations with Simon on the hit albums “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” and “Live Rhymin’.”

Simon had seen Mr. Dixon sing his hit song “To Sit at His Seat and Be Blessed” with his Jessy Dixon Singers at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. Simon called Mr. Dixon asking him to join his group.

“I didn’t think it was really Paul Simon,” Mr. Dixon told the Sun-Times in a 2002 interview in Crete. “I said, [rhythm and blues singer] Joe Simon? I was a little disturbed with Paul because he took ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ from the Swan Silvertones ‘Mary Don’t You Weep,’ where Claude Jeter sings, “I’ll be your bridge over troubled waters,’ but Paul paid off the authors and I had no reason to feel that way. He helped spread gospel even farther.”

Between 1972 and 1980 Mr. Dixon toured Israel, Japan and England with Simon. He learned Art Garfunkel’s parts. Mr. Dixon credited Simon with resurrecting his career and they remained friends.

Mr. Dixon wrote “You Will Bring The Sun Out” for Diana Ross, but it became a million seller for Randy Crawford. His composition “That’s What He’s Looking For” was featured in a “Laverne & Shirley” episode.

In one of his most majestic efforts, he led a 65-voice choir behind soul-gospel legend Mavis Staples and members of the rock band Sonia Dada in a ballad called “In Times Like These” that was featured on Staples’ solo “Have a Little Faith” album for Alligator Records. The song was written by Chicago producer-songwriter Jim Tullio and LeRoy Marinell (who wrote the Warren Zevon hit “Werewolves of London”) as a response to the events of Sept. 11.

“Jessy Dixon was a great influence on me personally,” Chicago-based Grammy-winning gospel recording artist Donald Lawrence said from a tour stop in St. Louis. “He was a great representative of the city and defined the sound of Chicago gospel and introduced that sound to audiences all over the world. Jessy was the ultimate sophisticated gospel singer-songwriter.”

Mr. Dixon was leader of the Chicago Community Choir, an offshoot of the beloved Thompson Community Singers from the city’s far West Side.

He believed songs came to him in dreams. “That’s why I usually sleep with a tape recorder in bed,” he said in 2002. “Somebody is singing in the dream and it is generally not me.”

The colorful gospel singer was born in San Antonio, Texas, where his father was a barber and tailor. Mr. Dixon moved to Chicago when he was a teenager. He was minister of music at Omega Baptist Church, 45th and State, when Willie Dixon (no relation) brought him into Chess as a session player.

Mr. Dixon played a Chicago 1/3/5 chord gospel that was more bluesy than the jazz-influenced Detroit or Los Angeles gospel. He had no problem with the age-old conflict of playing gospel and secular at the same time at Chess. “I never heard the lyrics,” he said in 2002. “I’d play on sessions and the singer wasn’t there. I read music, the charts would be there and off I’d go. I never played live secular music until I got with Paul Simon.”

Mr. Dixon’s resume included five gold records and several Grammy nominations, but his heart was cast in gospel. Last month he was in the front row at the celebration of life for Delois Barrett Campbell of the Barrett Sisters at Trinity United Church of Christ. Mr. Dixon liked to tell visitors gospel was “too-good-to-be-true” news. He’d say, “That’s why people get it confused with religion. Do I have to do this to please God?’ Well, he’s done it all for you already. And that’s too good to be true!”

Mr. Dixon is survived by a brother and sister. Services are pending.

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