Floyd Dixon, jump-blues piano player and singer, who dubbed himself as “Mr. Magnificent,” was born Jay Riggins, Jr., in Marshall, Texas, on February 8, 1928. As a child Dixon enjoyed listening to the music and attending house-rent parties in his hometown where he was inspired and captivated by a regional favorite piano player known as Roadmaster. By watching and listening to Roadmaster, Dixon taught himself to play piano.
In 1942 Dixon’s mother moved the family to Los Angeles, California, but unable to find a piano and continue playing, he became homesick. His mother sent him back to Texas where he lived in a tree house, eating at friends’ homes but mostly fending for himself. After a year Dixon returned to California to try living with his family. When that did not work out, he started going to church and was offered a place to stay at a friend’s house. The family had a piano so Dixon was able to practice.
Dixon started appearing in local amateur talent contests while working as a caddy and in a drugstore. About 1948 he won an amateur contest at the Million Dollar Theater. There he met Charles Brown, another Texas pianist-singer who had relocated to California. Brown was currently playing for Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. He took Dixon under his wing and eventually introduced him to a white man by the name of Mark Hurley. Hurley opened his home to him and became a key figure in Dixon’s life by encouraging him to practice and continue his music. Inspired by the blues and gospel of his youth, Dixon combined those early influences with his own gritty style, producing a unique sound that forecast both the roots of R&B and rock-and-roll.
In 1949 Dixon joined with Modern Records and recorded his first single, “Dallas Blues,” which was a significant success, especially in Texas; he followed with “Broken Hearted” and “Mississippi Blues” which both did well on the Billboard R&B charts. Dixon toured Georgia and Texas. After Charles Brown had left Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Dixon was a natural replacement. Dixon, backed by the Three Blazers, switched to Aladdin Records in late 1950 and in 1951 achieved one of their most substantial hits with “Telephone Blues” followed by “Call Operator 210.” Both singles were R&B hits. Other recordings to follow were “Red Cherries,” “Wine, Wine, Wine,” “Too Much Jelly Roll,” and “Baby Let’s Go Down to the Woods.”
Around 1952 Dixon switched to the Specialty label where he recorded some of his better-known songs. Among them was his popular 1954 hit “Hey, Bartender,” which was picked up by artists Koko Taylor and later the Blues Brothers in the 1970s.
Dixon continued to record and tour throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. However, his career slowed down with the onset of rock-and-roll. For a time he lived in obscurity in Paris, Texas. His career took an upturn with the release of a compilation of his songs in 1975, and he embarked on a European tour. In the 1980s he toured as part of the European Blues Caravan with Ruth Brown and former mentor, Charles Brown. In 1984 he was commissioned to write a blues song, “Olympic Blues,” for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Johnny Lee’s version of Dixon’s “Hey Bartender” became a hit on the country charts in 1985. In the 1990s Dixon found more success and was a fixture at American blues and jazz festivals. In 1993 he received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Career Achievement Award, and in 1997 he received the W. C. Handy Award for Comeback Album of the Year for Wake Up and Live! (1996) on the Alligator Record label. The live album included his popular older hits, such as “Hey, Bartender,” and the Ray Charles tribute, “A Long Time Ago.”
Considered to be one of the pioneers of the West Coast blues sound and a major influence and mentor to Ray Charles, B. B. King, and Robert Cray, Dixon’s expansive career had him taking on a variety of styles—boogie-woogie, swing, mournful blues, R&B, and gospel. He even flirted with Mexican music with his “Me Quieras” and some rock-and-roll with Little Richard-influenced “Ooh Little Girl,” but his strongest suit was jump blues. His popular CD, Marshall Texas is My Home (1991) pulls all of these styles together.
In June 2006 Floyd Dixon, despite failing health, joined with fellow pianists Pinetop Perkins and Henry Clay for a brief tour. Weeks later on July 26, 2006, he died of cancer at the age of seventy-seven in Orange, California, and was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery. He was survived by a son. Time Brings About a Change…A Floyd Dixon Celebration, featuring Dixon’s live performance with Pinetop Perkins and others, was released shortly after his death.