Thursday, January 19, 2012

Way Back - Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith was born in Helena, AR in 1936. At the age of 17 he ventured to Chicago where he heard Muddy Waters for the first time. Willie was hooked on the blues and the attraction to the music persuaded him to stay in Chicago.

In 1954 Willie, playing harmonica, formed a trio with drummer Clifton James. The trio built a following in Chicago and gigged around the area for a few years. During this same time, Willie played harp with several other artists including Bo Diddley, Arthur "Big Boy" Spires and Johnny Shines. In 1957 Willie joined Little Hudson's Red Devil Trio and switched to playing drums. After gigs or between sets, Willie started sitting in on drums with Muddy Waters' band. Muddy liked what he heard, and invited Willie to play drums on a 1959 recording session. Willie began to fill in for Muddy's drummer Francis Clay, and continued to play recording sessions with Muddy. In 1961, Willie replaced Clay in Muddy's band and played with Muddy till mid-1964. During this period, as he solidified his Chicago sound, Willie recorded with James Cotton, Jo Jo Williams and Muddy Waters on a tribute to blues vocalist Big Bill Broonzy.

The '60s were lean times for the blues and for a few years (mid-'64-'68) Willie packed up his drum kit and found himself doing odd jobs including working in a restaurant and driving a cab around Chicago. One night in 1968 Willie decided to go out and listen to Muddy. Rediscovering his desire to play, he asked to sit in with the band. The next day Muddy asked Willie to rejoin his band. Willie played in Muddy's band till 1980 and appears on all of Muddy's Grammy-winning albums.

After performing with Muddy Waters, Smith established his own niche within the tradition of the Delta Blues Sound by co-founding the Legendary Blues Band with Pinetop Perkins, Louis Myers, Calvin Jones, and Jerry Portnoy. The group was nominated for several Grammy Awards, recorded four critically acclaimed albums on the Ichiban label, backed up Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf and Junior Wells, toured with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. They played behind Muddy for the soundtrack of the movie The Last Waltz and appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers where they played street musicians backing John Lee Hooker.

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith 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. But these days fans are just as likely to find Willie "Big Eyes" Smith holding on to a harmonica, his first instrument, as a drum stick. Turns out, this award-winning blues drummer is also an accomplished harmonica master and dynamic vocalist.
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