October 2011


‘I Am Redeemed And I’m Going To Say So’

Dr. Jessy Dixon Crosses Over

March 12, 1938-September 26, 2011

Dr. Jessy Dixon, who achieved crossover success from gospel to pop after collaborating with Paul Simon on two album projects, died on September 26 at his Chicago home. He was 73.

Dr. Dixon (he received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Faith Theological Seminary and Christian College, Tampa, Florida, on June 13, 2006) did not need the adoration or affirmation from the secular audience. He was a bonafide gospel music giant simply on the strength of his songwriting, which found him favorably compared to the father of gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey, for the impact his songs have had on the genre He claimed to have written more than 200 songs in his life and many of those became gospel standards; some are gospel monuments. "I Am Redeemed,” released in 1993, stayed on Billboard’s gospel chart for more than five years and remains one of the most requested songs on gospel radio. "I Love To Praise His Name" received the prestigious Dove Award nomination as traditional gospel recording song of the year in 2008-2009 and is one of the most covered gospel songs of recent years. “You Bring The Sun Out” is regularly heard on radio and on gospel television shows.

Jessy Dixon performs his gospel monument ‘I Am Redeemed’ at the Capitol

Fate intervened in his career in 1972, when Paul Simon saw Dr. Dixon sing his song “To Sit At His Feet and Be Blessed” at the Newport Jazz Festival at Radio City Music Hall and followed up with a call asking the Dr. to join him first on Saturday Night Live and subsequently on tour. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Dr. Dixon said he didn’t believe it was really Paul Simon on the other end of the line, thinking it must be R&B singer Joe Simon playing a trick on him. Once convinced it was Paul, not Joe, Simon, Dr. Dixon expressed some reluctance to get involved with the singer-songwriter in his post-Simon & Garfunkel incarnation, owing to Simon having lifted part of his massive hit “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” from the Swan Silvertones’ “Mary Don’t You Weep,” specifically the Claude Jeter-sung line, “I’ll be your bridge over troubled waters.” “But Paul paid off the authors,” Dr. Dixon said, “and I had no reason to feel that way. He helped spread gospel even farther.”

Dr. Dixon accompanied Simon on two albums--Paul Simon In Concert: Live Rhymin’ (1974) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)--and between 1972 and 1980 joined Simon on tour in the U.S., Israel, Canada, France, Japan and Scandinavia. His secular career flourished during this period: in the late ‘70s he was studio keyboardist at Chess Records, accompanying Earth, Wind & Fire, Phil Upchurch and Fontella Bass, among other artists. Asked in 2002 if he had any conflicts as a dedicated gospel artist playing secular music, he said he didn’t because “I never heard the lyrics. 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.” Dr. Dixon reunited with Simon in 2006, singing “Wartime Prayers” on the latter’s Surprise album.

His biggest songwriting success in the pop field came with his song “You Will Bring The Sun Out.” Written for a Diana Ross, it became a million seller when recorded by Randy Crawford. “That’s What He’s Looking For,” another of his songs, garnered some attention for his work after it was featured in an episode of the hit ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley.

Born March 12, 1938 in San Antonio, Texas, where his father was a barber and tailor, the young Jessy played and sang his first song at age five. In his teens his gospel group was performing at a local theater when an audience member sought him out and asked Jessy to join his group. The audience member was gospel legend-in-the-making James Cleveland, his group was the Gospel Chimes, and he persuaded Jesse to move to Chicago where he would be both singer and pianist in the Chimes.

Jessy Dixon and Andrae Crouch, introduced by Bill Gaither, perform ‘Soon And Very Soon’

“Going to church was like going to school,” he recalled, given that it gave him a front-row seat to performances by Mahalia Jackson and Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music. 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. He started writing choral music and playing keyboards for one of Chicago’s most popular gospel choirs, the Thompson Community Singers, and several of his early songs became classics embraced and sung in churches all over America, including “Sit At His Feet and Be Blessed,” “These Old Heavy Burdens” and “I Love To Praise His Name.”

dixonFrom the beginning of his professional gospel career, Dr. Dixon insisted his goal was to reach across the cultural divide and break down the barriers between musical styles. He found support by way of Christian music stalwarts Bill and Gloria Gaither, who invited Dr. Dixon to participate in one of their popular Homecoming events, performing alongside some of the most popular artists in the southern gospel field and in the process reaching the Homecoming’s substantial white audience both on television and via DVD. "Christian music isn't just one style," Bill Gaither pointed out when asked about Dr. Dixon’s inclusion in the Homecoming lineup. "It's a theology wrapped up in a lot of different styles, therefore the artists have become segmented. The videos have been unifying, and Jessy's appearance has had a bridge building effect.

"I have traveled with Jessy Dixon for the past 10 years and never have I been with an artist with more heart,” Gaither added. “He is the real thing."

From the Gaither video Passin’ the Faith Along, Jessy Dixon performs ‘I Can’t Even Walk’ with Gaither regulars Guy Penrod and David Phelps

One of his most memorable career highlights came when 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-based 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.

Dr. Dixon was leader of the Chicago Community Choir, an offshoot of the beloved Thompson Community Singers from the city’s far West Side. On June 14, 2008 he was inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame.

Artists who crossed Dr. Dixon’s path always had emotional responses to his presence. Paul Simon spoke of Dr. Dixon’s “rare and joyous musical gift” and added: “During the years I have been associated with Jessy, my appreciation of the gospel has grown."

"There's a element in Jessy's music that can't be mistaken," said Diana Ross, "That element is love, and wow do I feel it."

Dr. Dixon, however, always kept his eye on the sparrow. “The greatest joy of my life,” he said, “is to bask in the love of the one whom this gospel music is all about.

“I am redeemed, and I’m going to say so.”

During his career Dr. Dixon recorded 18 albums, earned five gold records and multiple Grammy nominations. He is survived by a brother and a sister.

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