Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dixon revealed an aptitude for writing poetry as well as deep, rich voice developed in church prior to moving to Chicago in 1937. He first made his mark as a professional boxer before becoming a singer/bassist with a jazz-pop combo, the Five Breezes, in 1940. The group would record for Bluebird that year without commercial success; sessions with Mercury in the early 1940s, as a member of the Four Jumps of Jive, also failed to produce any hits. Together with pianist Leonard Caston and guitarist Bernardo Dennis, he then founded the Big Three Trio, whose jazz-R&B-pop amalgam was waxed by Columbia in the late 1940s. Their most popular recording, "You Sure Look Good to Me" (Columbia 38093; 1948), reached number ten on the Billboard R&B charts.
He began working as a producer for Chess Records in 1951, proving his worth on a series of tracks with guitarist Robert Nighthawk. While producing Chess sessions well into the 1970s, Dixon found time to pursue many other activities, including production work for the Chicago-based Cobra label, recording as the featured artist, promoting new talent (e.g., Little Wolf, Margie Evans), managing a record company (Yambo), and live performing, first with Memphis Slim in the early 1960s and, beginning in 1967, as head of his own band, the Chicago Blues All-Stars. Dixon’s only solo hit, "Walking the Blues" (Checker 822; 1955) reached number six on the R&B charts.
Following the 1987 settlement of a two-decade dispute with Led Zeppelin over the failure to credit his contribution to the composition of "Whole Lotta Love" (based largely on his "You Need Love"), Dixon established the Blues Heaven Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving blues music and culture as well as helping secure copyrights and ensuing royalties for other songwriters and recording artists. Despite a relative lack of success as a recording artist, much of his work has been reissued on compact disc, from the Big Three Trio to 1970s albums by the Chicago Blues All-Stars. His most enduring legacy, however, remains the classic Chess tracks he helped create in a supporting role. Many of them are available in a three-CD compilation, The Willie Dixon Chess Box (Chess 316500)