Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (1936-2011): An Appreciation

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Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, a former sideman with Muddy Waters who became a Grammy-winning performer in his own right, has died. A new message on his Web site reads: “We are deeply saddened to report that Willie “Big Eyes” Smith passed away early the morning of September 16, 2011 at his home in Chicago from a stroke. All arrangements are pending and information will be forthcoming.”

Smith, born in Helena, Ark, on January 19, 1936, was raised by sharecropper grandparents. As a child, neighbors included the likes of Robert Nighthawk and Pinetop Perkins, with whom he established a long working relationship. At 17, he left for Chicago and never returned, instead immersing himself in the burgeoning blues scene there. Smith taught himself harmonica and drums, and then began performing with a series of groups — initially with harpist Clifton James and guitarist Bobby Lee Burns in a blues trio, then with Arthur “Big Boy” Spires and also in Hudson Shower’s Red Devil Trio. Smith’s ride to fame included a switch from harmonica to drums, though he later returned to the harp late in his career. Next, however, came a game-changing meeting with Muddy Waters.

Smith first recorded with Waters on the 1960 album Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy; and officially joined Waters’ band the following year. He remained with the blues legend until 1980, when Smith co-founded the Legendary Blues Band with Perkins. They played behind Waters for the soundtrack of The Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz” and appeared in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” where they played street musicians backing John Lee Hooker.

A late bloomer as a band leader, Smith’s first solo recording Bag Full of Blues did not appear until 1995, followed by Nothin’ But the Blues Y’all four years later. A new century, however, saw Smith produce records in a torrent of creativity: Blues from the Heart was issued in 2000, then Bluesin’ It in 2004, Way Back in 2006 and Born in Arkansas in 2008. His most well-received project arrived in 2010: The Grammy- and Blues Music Award-winning Joined At The Hip, recorded with Perkins, would be named in DownBeat’s Critics Poll as best blues album.

Smith was named the Blues Music Awards drummer of the year 12 times between 1996 and 2010, a run that included consecutive nods from 1996-99 and from 2002-09. Perkins also passed this year.

Here’s a look back at reviews and interviews mentioning Smith. Click through the title for more …

WILLIE ‘BIG EYES’ SMITH AND PINETOP PERKINS, “GRINDING MAN” (2010): A shared history, this common bond that goes deeper than blood, plays out terrifically on “Grinding Man,” as Perkins, still rolling and tumbling at the upright, takes over from Smith for a rare vocal turn. There’s no denying the power, and the purring sexuality, of the song — part of a long-held blues tradition of tongue-waggingly salacious innuendo surely not lost on Perkins, named top pianist in the 2010 Living Blues Awards’ readers poll. “Some call me Pinetop Perkins, some of them call me the grinding man,” Perkins yowls, as Smith, 74, grinds away on his first instrument, the harmonica. “Used to have so many customers, it’d take me a whole week to get around!”

MUDDY WATERS – HARD AGAIN (1977): Any coach can tell you the best way to break out of the slump is surround yourself with good talent and get back to the fundamentals and Muddy did just that. Great musicians are all over this record: Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, just for starters. Blues guitar monster Johnny Winter served as producer for this album and serves up some of his patented nasty guitar licks and some great vocals — maybe, it’s more like screeching, whooping and hell yeahs! It’s pretty much what you would imagine it was like to have Muddy and friends come into your house, eat all your food, drink your beer then plug up and jam. You should know you are in trouble right off the bat when Muddy takes his classic hit “Mannish Boy” and turns it into something new, maybe better, but definitely mean.

SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW – BOB MARGOLIN, MUDDY WATERS GUITARIST: Margolin talks about playing in the late-1970s Waters band that included Smith, saying “I had the opportunity to learn like an apprentice to a master for playing blues, unlike more modern forms of education. I learned a lot from being around Muddy and the other older players in his band socially as well as musically. One of the big lessons was letting go of anger after expressing it, then moving on — “forgive and forget.” Muddy wanted to treat me well and give me a valuable opportunity to learn. I wanted to learn as much as I could and use it both to give him what he wanted on the bandstand as well as for myself.”

MUDDY WATERS – HOOCHIE COOCHIE MAN (1977): “I Want You to Love Me,” with its influential stop-start time (the same one that made the album’s Willie Dixon-penned title cut a staple), is best remembered as the initial Muddy cut to feature a pianist, Otis Spann. That sound, with the addition of “Got My Mojo Workin,’” make up the cornerstone of the Waters legend. But, even at this late date (just five years before his death), Muddy is willing to get outside his own familiar vernacular. The night closes, for instance, with a stomping 11-minute version of “Kansas City” — written by Leiber and Stoller, of “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me” fame. Perkins shares lead vocals.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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