SEPTEMBER 16, 2011 – Singer/drummer/harmonica player WILLIE “BIG EYES” SMITH (b. January 19, 1936 in Helena, Arkansas) died following a stroke at age 75 at the University of Chicago Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. He was survived by his wife of 42 years, Ilene; sons Kenny, Kerry, Andre, Javik and Willie Jr.; daughters Sally, Jacqueline and Cassandra Smith, Barbara Miller, Patricia Morris, Joyce McNeil and Darlene Lipsey; and 30 grandchildren.
Smith’s traditional shuffle style has been regarded as the heart and soul of the Chicago blues sound, with Willie laying the beat behind many of the blues classics.Smith, who is perhaps best known for several stints with the Muddy Waters band beginning in the early 1960s, was raised by his sharecropper grandparents. As a child his neighbors included the likes of Robert Nighthawk and Pinetop Perkins (whom he watched play at age six).
Smith’s influences included listening to 78 rpm records and the KFFA “King Biscuit” radio show, some of which were broadcast from Helena’s Miller Theater, where he saw guitar player Joe Willie Wilkins, and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II.At age 17 he traveled to Chicago to visit his mother in 1953, and when she took him to hear Muddy Waters at the Zanzibar club, he never returned home. “He came to visit his mother,” said his son, also a blues drummer. “The story is she took him out to a club and he met Muddy. After that, he asked her for a drum kit.”He soon taught himself to play harmonica and drums, and with drummer Clifton James and guitarist Bobby Lee Burns formed a blues trio. In 1955 Smith played harmonica on Bo Diddley’s recording of the Willie Dixon song “Diddy Wah Diddy” for the Checker label and upon marrying his first wife that same year, Smith agreed to retire from performing, but within a year he was backing Arthur “Big Boy” Spires as “Little Willie” Smith in the Rocket Four and made recordings that were later reissued on the Delmark label. He also performed with bluesman Johnny Shines.
After a brief attempt at fronting his own band, he returned to his drum kit, joining Hudson Shower’s Red Devil Trio. Shortly thereafter Muddy Waters asked Willie to join his band as an understudy to drummer “Mojo” Buford. Willie replaced Buford in the studio within a year and recorded with Waters on the 1960 album “Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy” (a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy). He remained with Waters band (which then consisted of George “Mojo” Buford, Luther Tucker, Pat Hare and Otis Spann) until 1964 when he quit the business for awhile (even working at one point at a Chicago restaurant and as a cab driver when he wasn’t collecting welfare).After several years at this low point in his life, Willie decided to go out and listen to Waters one night in 1969.
Rediscovering his urge to play, he asked to sit in with the band, and the next day Muddy asked Willie to rejoin his band, remaining until 1980. In 1976, he backed Waters on his performance in the Martin Scorsese concert film “The Last Waltz” which documented The Band’s farewell performance.All of Muddy’s Grammy Award winning albums (“Hard Again,” “I’m Ready,” “They Call Me Muddy Waters,” “Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters Live,” “The London Muddy Waters Session,” and “The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album”), were released between 1971 and 1979 during Smith’s tenure with the band. Though he did not play on all of these albums, Smith is estimated to have participated in twelve sessions yielding eighty-four tracks.In June 1980, Smith and other members of Muddy’s band Pinetop Perkins (piano), Calvin Jones (bass) and Jerry Portnoy (harmonica) struck out on their own, also recruiting veteran Chicago blues man Louis Myers (harmonica/guitar) to form The Legendary Blues Band, with the vocals shared by all. Later that year, Smith and the Legendary Blues Band appeared backing John Lee Hooker in the movie “The Blues Brothers” (1980). Smith was the only band member, besides Hooker, to appear onscreen in close-up. With varying personnel over the years, the Legendary Blues Band recorded seven albums, “Life of Ease,” “Red Hot ‘n’ Blue,” “Woke Up with the Blues” (nominated for a W. C. Handy Award), “U B Da Judge,” “Prime Time Blues,” and “Money Talks,” all recorded between 1981 and 1993. By the time “Money Talks” came out in 1993, Smith had become a very credible singer.
The Legendary Blues Band toured with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton (whom Smith had recorded with in the 1964 Otis Spann recording of “Pretty Girls Everywhere”).Smith’s first solo recording started in 1995 with “Bag Full of Blues” with Pinetop Perkins, harpist Kim Wilson, guitarists James Wheeler, Nick Moss and Gareth Best. “Nothin’ But the Blues Y’all” followed four years later, and in 1999, Smith recorded with Muddy Waters’ son Big Bill Morganfield on his album “Rising Son.”Smith’s “Blues from the Heart” was issued in fall 2000. “Bluesin’ It” appeared in 2004 from Electro-Fi while the pleasant “Way Back” was released in 2006 by Hightone Records. It contained 11 songs, half of which he wrote. He was backed by Bob Margolin and Frank Krakowski on guitar, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and guest shots by James Cotton and others.Smith’s 2008 album “Born in Arkansas” utilized bassman Bob Stroger, pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, guitarist Billy Flynn, guitarist Little Frank Krakowski (who has worked with Smith for years) and his son and drummer, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith. In June 2010, Smith released “Joined at the Hip” with Pinetop Perkins, Stroger, and Kenny Smith on drums. John Primer, who was another Muddy Waters band alumnus, joined on lead guitar along with Frank Krakowski.On February 13, 2011, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.Smith remained active in his final year of life, encouraging Liz Mandeville to start her own record label (Blue Kitty Music) and he was featured on two tracks of her album “Clarksdale” that was released in 2012.