He's worked with everybody from James Cleveland to Paul Simon and down the decades been acknowledged as one of the giants of gospel. Jessy Dixon spoke at length to Mike Rimmer.
Picture the scene. A five-year-old black boy in a church. It's Christmas and he is singing "The First Noel". It's going down well with the congregation but the singer is shy and suddenly in the middle of the chorus he stops and tells the lady accompanist he's had enough. His mother is so embarrassed that she cries! Not a debut performance that would give any indication that the little boy would one-day tour the world inspiring audiences with anointed performances. But Jessy Dixon knows that his mother got over it! Recalls Jessy, "It was funny because mothers always want you to do so well but from then on she became my biggest fan, sitting up and taking pictures whenever I sang."
Jessy Dixon is on a high. He's in Germany and he's playing to packed houses. Packed houses that keep wanting more! Last time Jessy was in Europe he managed 10 encores at the end of one performance and the audience wouldn't let him leave the stage. Tonight it was only five! The audience loved it and he's honoured God. Dixon is a legend in gospel music and his performances are famous for their power and energy. With his recent trip to perform in London, now is a good time for a spectacular gallop through his career.
It's not every day that I get the chance to talk to a living legend so I wonder how it feels to be one! "I don't know who they're talking about!" Jessy laughs. "I'm getting all these titles now, the King Of Gospel, and I look around and say, 'Is it me?'" Like the blues, gospel music doesn't rely on youth to sell the music so careers keep going. Jessy agrees. "That's true because it's the only music that doesn't die. Paul Simon once told me that the average life of a song is six months other than in gospel music. It's the only music where the songs live on, it's timeless and I'm so blessed to be singing that music and to be known for that kind of music. So I can sing a song like 'I Expect To See Him' or other songs that I did 15 years ago, they're still alive today. Anybody who does gospel is doing the right thing."
Jessy Dixon knows all about legends. His career began by playing the piano for James Cleveland alongside Billy Preston who was on the organ! He remembers, "We were both kids and we didn't know anything about music but James decided he wanted to teach us how to be professional and I will never forget those days because I learned so much and I was exposed to gospel singers that really started all of this music like James Cleveland, Thomas Dorsey, Mighty Clouds Of Joy and Shirley Caesar. I idolised all of those people because I went to their concerts."
Originally from San Antonio in Texas, Jessy developed a love for music from his childhood. His first music lessons were taken when he was five years old. At school and college he developed a reputation as a singer and pianist, studying in college as a music major. Moving to Chicago, Jessy worked with the Thompson Community Singers as an accompanist, composer and singer.
Amazingly, Dixon did all of this before he was saved! "That is true," says Jessy. "Being black, it was like gospel music is a part of your world as well as blues or jazz and you can take your choice because you're going to hear all of it. I decided I wanted to sing gospel as an art form. I started playing classical music first and when I heard James Cleveland and all these great singers, I began to rethink my music career and decided I liked gospel music. Being from Chicago, I could hear Mahalia Jackson any day I wanted because she lived there. I began to idolise the people who did gospel and I was singing it and going to church but I had not made a serious commitment as far as Christianity was concerned."
Despite the fact that he was unsaved, Jessy had a reputation for strong live gospel performances and it was one such performance that changed his career. "It was at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1972," Jessy recalls. "Paul Simon saw me sing. I was only supposed to do 15 minutes but I ended up doing four encores and it made history because no other artist including Ella Fitzgerald had ever got that many encores." The ironic thing about the concert was that when the promoter of the Newport Jazz Festival approached Dixon, he did not have a group. Having been singing with the Thompson Community Singers for a couple of years, he recruited three singers from there and the Jessy Dixon Singers were formed. As he recalls, "We weren't even a group when Paul Simon heard us, that was our first date."
Dixon was unaware that Paul Simon was in the audience that night. He knew his show had gone down well but remembers being shocked when Simon phoned him a few days later. "He called me and I didn't believe it was him because I'd never talked with him on the telephone and I thought it was just somebody teasing me. He kept saying, 'I want you to come back to New York. Garfunkel is not with me any more and I'm doing a tour of Israel, Japan and Europe.' He kept rattling off these things and, 'I want you to come back to New York and bring your group, the three ladies and the musicians and we'll tour together. I want to take you round the world.' Those were his words. And he did! He said, 'To prove it I am going to send you some of my albums.' I didn't know his songs, I'd never heard of 'Sound Of Silence' and he said, 'I want you to learn "Sound Of Silence" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water",' and when the albums came in the mail, I knew it was really him!"
Working with Paul Simon brought Jessy more critical acclaim, a wider audience and gold records! He had already received a gold record for 'Sit At His Feet And Be Blessed', an album which he had recorded with the Chicago Community Choir in 1970. His eight years with Paul Simon added gold albums for his contributions to Simon's 'Live Rhymin' Simon' and 'Still Crazy'.
It was whilst working with Paul Simon that Jessy Dixon became a Christian. Simon was so taken with the changes in Dixon that he would tell people Jessy's testimony! "Paul would tell Bette Middler, James Taylor and all these people that I had given my heart to the Lord and they would say, 'Well, what does that mean?' So it was a great door opener for me to witness to people who had never gone to a Christian church but they began to listen to me and want to hear my testimony."
So how did he become a Christian? "I played secular and Christian music, it was like living in two different worlds. It got to a point where I was so confused and I wanted to know whether this God that I was singing about was real so I began to search. I studied yoga, psychology, Eastern religions and I was searching and searching. A friend of mine told me that what I was looking for was Jesus. He began to witness to me and every day he gave me tracts and made me read them. I got so tired of him! But I'm glad he didn't stop because he stayed with me until I would read and listen and look. One night I went to a party and everybody was just doing drugs and for some reason I heard a voice say, leave this place.' I went home and that friend of mine the next day invited me to hear an evangelist teach on salvation."
Dixon didn't become a Christian that day but the next morning when he was driving in his car he turned on the radio and heard another evangelist give the same message and so there in his car he asked the Lord to come into his heart. The immediate change it made to his music was that he dropped all the songs that were merely religious or traditional and began to concentrate on singing material that reflected the depth of his newfound faith in Jesus.
For the eight years from 1972 until 1980, Dixon had the privilege of playing to Paul Simon's audiences. This was a huge mission field, a white un-churched audience. Dixon remembers, "Pat Boone came to me and said he didn't think anybody else but me could do this. I just love taking the gospel to people who wouldn't normally get the chance to hear it. We have so many great memories of people that came to Paul Simon's concerts. Even the reviewers ended up saying that it was a Christian concert. Once we sang 'Jesus Is The Answer' and 'What Do You Call Him', everything would change. The power of God would come in and people would give me the one way sign. The Lord gave me favour with Paul and he gave me the platform."
As well as working with Paul Simon, Jessy Dixon performed concerts with Pat Boone and BJ Thomas, two mainstream performers who had become Christians. Pat Boone had been instrumental in encouraging some of the very first Jesus Rock artists to record albums, notably putting up the money for Randy Stonehill's debut album 'Born Twice'. He also encouraged Dixon. It was whilst performing with Boone that Jessy had his most embarrassing moment on stage! He laughs and remembers, "I was singing in concert with Pat, the song was 'Operator' and people encored me back and I walked back on the stage and Pat came out and I stepped back to let him in front of me and the monitor speaker was behind me and I fell over it. The audience loved it; they thought it was part of the act."