The Whiskey Junction was pretty noisy that September evening, so Mr. Dixon and I stepped outside to talk. The night air was warm with a slight breeze that included the
scent of pizza from Mac's Restaurant nearby. People and motorcycles buzzed by just enough to prove to Popsy that Minneapolis could be a pretty hip place on a Thursday night in autumn. He and I sat at one of the picnic tables by the front door, and every now and then, some interested bar patron inside the Junction would peep out the glass window
to watch us for a minute or two.
The first thing I asked Mr. Dixon was his given first name: "I know your Mom didn't name you Popsy," I teased. He proudly reached into his back pocket and pulled out his
passport with picture, date of birth and legal name stamped inside: Willie Leonard Dixon. He didn't show me his driver's license because he travels more by plane than car these days. And, when he's home in Manhattan, he takes a cab or walks everywhere he needs to go. The conversation started there and didn't end until it was time for him to play.
Popsy Dixon, drummer and singer with the Holmes Brothers, was in Minneapolis for a vacation. He said bass player Paul Manske of the Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls, had invited him to spend a few days in town, and seeing as how it was Labor Day weekend, Popsy just couldn't say no. He was all set to sit in with the Voodoo Dolls that evening, but was also enjoying the break we spent together outside, checking out the Minnesotans as they came and went from the club.
Jacquie: What's a Virginia guy like you doing in Manhattan?
Popsy: Hangin out with Jackie...hahahahaha…not you...with Jackie Onassis! You got a famous name, you know!
Jacquie: So do you....Willie Dixon!
Popsy: Yea, but they call me Popsy. Really, I live around the corner from Jackie Onassis. Been livin' there about 8 years. It's a little studio apartment but I love it! I love the location, I'm so close to everything. Problem is, even after 8 years, the police still follow me everywhere I go. They just can't believe a black man has a right to be in that part of Manhattan. There's a bunch of Haitians and Rastafarians who work there, they're nannies and such, you know, but when it gets dark, they're outta there. I'm the only dark thing in that part of the city at night.
Jacquie: It doesn't scare you, walking around New York alone?
Popsy: I ain't worried about the young brothers cause I walk around dressed like this (He touches his suit coat and pants). They don't bother me. I'm more worried about the cops.
Jacquie: Why you like playing drums so much?
Popsy: I don't know. I just always have. My Dad used to play banjo and he would put me on his lap while he was playing. My aunt, she played upright piano, used to just bang away on that thing. But, none of that phased me, it just didn't sink in. I never picked up on it. Then, one Christmas when I was 7, my Mom and Dad took me
to the store and told me to get anything I liked. There was this tiny red drum set, with a tiny little kick drum and snare....little cymbals. Now, that's what I wanted! But, by the next morning, the thing was in the trash can. I beat it all to death. But, I tell you what...I knew how to play after that. I just knew. I had the rhythm down pat and had timing too. Just that fast. I been playing ever since.
Jacquie: You play other instruments?
Popsy: Wouldn't play a guitar or a horn if you asked me. I just don't want to play any other instrument. You know, a few years ago, some kid told me being a musician ain't hard work, and how come at my age, I don't get me a "real" job. I told him, Man, this IS hard work. You GOT to be in some kinda shape. I used to play drums all night, every night and sing too. Then, have to be at work at 6AM the next day. I was a porter, working at Bergdorf Goodman's in New York, in the women's lingerie department. Don't ask me why they put me there, but good thing it was easy work. All I had to do was push this cart around and do some dusting, and I could do that half asleep, you know.
Jacquie: Is that what you'd be doing if you weren't playing music?
Popsy: Actually, my father had a moving business and he got me some trucks of my own and everything. He said, "One day, boy, all this will be yours". But I told him, "Dad, this is just not my callin'." By then, I was playing around pretty good, so he said, "Son, I understand."
Jacquie: You guys...The Holmes Brothers...mix it up pretty good. You play blues, country, gospel, swampy stuff.....
Popsy: It's all music. It's all the same thing...if it's good, that is. The people seem to like it. Even the President. We played a fund-raiser for Clinton's last nomination a couple years ago. They raised 27 MILLION dollars. That's a lot of money. He sent a Secret Service agent to ask us if he could shake our hands after we played. To ASK us if it was alright, can you believe it? Well, President Clinton hung around with us for a while. It was freaking out the Secret Service guys. Those agents took the guitar player's tuner away. You know how you gotta plug in the guitar to tune it up? (I nodded yes) Well, the Secret Service guy saw all the lights, didn't know what it was and confiscated it, just ripped it off the guitar cord and took it. (Popsy giggled at the memory). We played a fund-raiser for Al Gore too right after that.
Jacquie: You guys are playing all over the world: Brazil, Germany, then to Spain. Is it starting to wear you out?
Popsy: I'm 60 years old and I'm having a good time. When people tell me they can't do such and such because of their age, I say...yea...you just keep on feelin' that way, cause I'm moving right past you. You limit yourself by how you think. If you think you can't do it, then you can't. I don't limit myself that way. I just keep on keepin' on and feelin good. Even when I ain't playing, I'm out fishin. But let me tell you, once we played in West Africa and they kept asking us if we were politicians. We said "Hell, no...we're musicians. We just came here to play." Playing is what makes me feel good and I'm not gonna stop until life stops.
Jacquie: You guys mix in everything...how about a little jazz?
Popsy: You know Bernard Purdie? (I knew of Mr. Purdie's drum work. He also produces Carrie Smith, an artist I play on the radio show) Well, me and him are good friends. We talk drums all the time. He always says "Popsy, you just do what you're doing." Meaning, I play my style of drums and he plays his style. To me, jazz
drums have a different texture. It's more than just going outside the groove. In jazz, the drums follow the horns and the guitar. In blues, you follow the bass line. I can play simple pop jazz stuff (Popsy sang a couple jazzy riffs for me), but I wouldn't play straight jazz for all the money in the world. I'll let Purdie play all that hard core stuff. It's too difficult for me. It's hard to explain. Blues and jazz...you just play from different places.
Just then, Paul Manske and booking agent Gene Wenger looked out the window, so I figured it was probably time to wrap up the interview. Plus, photographer Mike Evan was patiently waiting to take a picture of Popsy. So, I shook Mr. Dixon's hand, but added one last question.
Jacquie: What do you think about the female side of the blues story? Women are coming back in full force.
Popsy: It's about time. Muddy Waters and those guys dominated for so long, now the women are giving the men competition and that's good. Both sides need to be told. But, you really can't separate it like that...men's versus women's. No matter what, it all ends up in the same place.
KFAI Radio Rollin & Tumblin
90.3 & 106.7 FM
Mpls/St. Paul, Minnesota
This interview is copyright © 2000 by Jacquie Maddix, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.