Willie “Big Eyes” Smith 1936 – 2011

John’s friend Willie “Big Eyes” Smith died on September 16. He was 75.

Born in Helena, Arkansas, Willie moved to Chicago as a youngster and, his mother influenced him by introducing him to the music of Muddy Waters. Initially, Willie was immersed in the harmonica and, his first great acheivement was playing the harp on Bo Diddley’s 1955 recording of “Diddy Wah Diddy”, while still a teenager.

Willie began hanging around at rehearsals at Muddy Waters’ southside Chicago home and, he once told John the story behind how he got his start in the music business. Says John …

” What Willie told me was that Muddy let him hang out at his house when Willie was just a kid. They didn’t need a harmonica player – they had Little Walter ! But, Muddy liked Willie a lot personally and, for a while, Willie became Muddy Waters’ valet / roadie type of man. Then, around 1961, Willie got a chance to do some fill in work for Muddy’s drummist, Francis Clay. Willie knew that he wasn’t gonna get into THAT band on the harmonica, because the legendary “Little Walter” Jacobs had THAT job? So, Willie picked up on the drums. Everybody was supposed to have a nickname in those days and, for a while, Willie became ‘Little Willie’ but, then Muddy said something like : ‘We already got enough guys who are named Little something or other, I think’ . Little Walter was there and, he’s kinda famous er what ? So anywho, one day, a smiling Muddy Waters looked Willie over and, he said ‘You gotta have a different name other than ‘Little’ – you are ‘Big Eyes’ and, that is how Willie got his nickname from Muddy”.

Between 1961 and, 1964 Willie drummed for Muddy but, the work was not consistent at that time and, Willie became discouraged and, ended up working driving a taxi and, doing restaurant jobs. But, The Rolling Stones and, The Animals helped to bring Muddy’s name to the attention of a previously negligent world. In 1968, Willie went to see Muddy again at a Chicago nightspot and, ended up sitting in on the drums. From 1968 until the end of Muddy’s performing days in 1980, Willie became the drummer and, played on Muddy’s 6 classic Grammy Award winning albums, including “Hard Again”, “I’m Ready”, and, “Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters Live” (those 3 discs were produced by Johnny Winter for Blue Sky/Columbia Records, who worshipped Muddy to the point where he got everything right and, Muddy actually started to sell LPs !?).

In 1980, Muddy’s health began to fail and, so Willie co-founded The Legendary Blues Band with fellow Muddy Waters band alumnus “Pinetop” Perkins (piano) and, that same year Willie’s group appeared in the Belushi/Ackroyd movie The Blues Brothers, backing John Lee Hooker on “Boom Boom”. Willie can be seen on the drums in a close-up, in this major motion picture that did so much to promote the songs of roots musicians such as Sam And Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and, Ray Charles. Once again, the world had previously been previously somewhat negligent? But, the roots of Rhythm And Blues and, Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die and, so …

Eventually, Willie and, his group, The Legendary Blues Band, got to open concerts for The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and, Eric Clapton. Besides performing with The Legendary Blues Band, Willie began to make his own solo albums, singing and, playing the drums and, in 2000, he recorded a song that JOHN MARS and JACK deKEYZER custom wrote for him, called “Big Wig Woman”. Willie thought that John’s lyrics for this number were particularity hilarious and, that Jack had executed a very Muddy type guitar lick on the recording.

Willie at an Electro-Fi recording session with Billy Boy Arnold by Andrew Kempa
Willie at an Electro-Fi recording session with Billy Boy Arnold by Andrew Kempa

In February, 13 2011,at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith received a Grammy Award (Best Traditional Blues Album) for his “Joined At The Hip” album with Pinetop Perkins. By this time, Willie was again playing the harmonica on record, as well as singing. Says John Mars …

” I was so glad to see Willie live to see some sort of recognition on his own. Besides his sense of humour, what I remember best about him were casual conversations that he and, I had about all the different types of shuffle beats that drummers like Al Smith (with John Lee Hooker) and, Francis Clay (with Muddy Waters/John Lee Hooker) used to use. Willie was a great shuffle beat drummer and, he liked to talk to me about this type of stuff. I had been a drummist when I was a kid, before I became a singer so, I was always interested in what he had to say about playing the drums. Willie really understood how lazy the little trips on the snare are supposed to feel, when you are shuffling. You’ve got to be a lil’ bit delayed with your snare work, to make it sound cool…you should never clobber the beat. So, he and, I would go over all these cool ‘feels’ in our conversations about how the drums should be played in a blues shuffle or a slow blues. Drumming is all about independence between your hands and, Willie also really knew how to switch all that up. You know, you sometimes reverse what you are doing between the left and, right. Ambidextrous shit !

Willie’s drums had this crazy, swirly, psychedelic finish and, I am pretty sure that they were a really old ‘Stewart’ set from around 1967. I bet that he bought them in a South Side pawn shop or something ? The bass drum, floor tom and, tenor tom all had the resonating heads removed. When Willie packed up his drum set, he would put the big ride cymbal and, other cymbals into the bass drum, then put the floor tom into the bass drum as well and, walk out and, load this pile into his van, then come back for the rest, so that it was just two trips out to the van. He didn’t have any cases for the drums.

I first saw Willie play the drums in around 1972 with Muddy at The Colonial on Yonge Street in Toronto. I was just a kid and, then, a drummer/singer in my own little high school Rock ‘n’ Roll band, John Mars And The Martians with Stan Baka on guitar. We couldn’t go into the bar there at the tavern but, underaged folks like us could sit in the balcony we stayed well behaved and, had enough cake to buy a couple of Cokes. I was in awe at gigs like this. I saw Thelonious Monk at the Colonial with my dad when I was a youngster so, I knew the scene. At that time, going to see Muddy, it was one of those things where you don’t even dream that you will get to meet someone like Willie Smith, let alone later in life, actually become acquainted with him and, have the guy think enough of your writing to get a song from your own self ?

"My Last Picture Of Willie" by Andrew Kempa, 2011
“My Last Picture Of Willie” by Andrew Kempa, 2011

I remember the week that Willie was in Toronto working on recording my song, Big Wig Woman for his Blues From The Heart album with Jack deKeyzer (my co-writer), Michael Fonfara, Alec Fraser and, Al Lerman backing him. Initially, I had a line in there that said something like ‘skinny leg women just bring me down’. Willie made me change the line, saying to me ‘I like the big girls with the real big legs but, I pretty much like the ones with the skinny legs, too. So, I can’t sing that line, you gotta change it, because I can only sing the truth’ “.

submitted by Krista Stahl