Remembering Chicago blues legend Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith

September 20, 2011

By Jason Marck

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Chicago blues legend Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith died Sept. 16, 2011, aged 75.

On Friday, Sept. 16 the Chicago blues scene lost another elder statesman. Eight Forty-Eight's Jason Marck offered this remembrance of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

In the last 12 months, Chicago blues fans said goodbye to Little Smokey Smothers, Pinetop Perkins, Lacy Gibson and Honeyboy Edwards. Recently and sadly, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was added to that list.

Smith was born in Helena, Arkansas in 1936.  At 17, after hearing Muddy Waters in a Chicago club, he was inspired to become a blues musican and moved north. He played harmonica in several bands around town. He formed a trio with the great drummer Clifton James and played in a quartet with the well-known Arthur “Big Boy” Spires. He also played with slide-guitar legend Johnny Shines, and with a then-up-and-comer recording for Chess Records by the name of Bo Diddley.

In the late '50s, there was more demand for drummers than for harp players--so Smith switched to drums. He occasionally filled in for Muddy’s drummer and officially joined the band in 1961. But by the mid '60s, he needed steadier money, so he put the kit away and drove a cab to pay the bills. 

One night in 1968, Smith sat in again with Muddy’s band. The next day, Waters asked him to join as a permanent member; and he stayed in the drum chair for the next 12 years. 

Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglaur had fond memories of Smith’s distinctive style: "Willie was very proudly an old school drummer….he commented with his drums on everything that was going on in the song…that would just make you grin from ear to ear," Ingalur said.

Big Eyes, Pintop Perkins and the other members of the Muddy Waters outfit quit en masse in 1980 and formed The Legendary Blues Band. Smith recorded a series of albums with the LBB, and the group toured with the Stones, Clapton and Dylan.

Beginning in the mid '90s, Smith recorded as a leader--showing off his prowess as a singer--and went back to his original instrument, the harmonica. He won a string of Blues Foundation Awards and a Grammy in 2010 for his recording “Joined at the Hip” with Pinetop Perkins.

The drummer on that recording was destined to be the keeper of his flame, as Bruce Iglaur explained.

"Willie Smith’s legacy is being carried on beautifully by his son; it’ll be different every time and it’ll be great every time," he remarked.

Smith gained fame for his shuffle beat that became synonymous with Chicago Blues; but at the age of 75, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith shuffled off this mortal coil.

A celebration of the life and music of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith will be held at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago Thursday, Sept. 22. Funeral services take place Sunday, Sept. 25 and Monday Sept. 26.