Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
Smith at the 2008 Master Musicians Festival
Smith at the 2008 Master Musicians Festival
Background information
Birth nameWillie Lee Smith[1]
Born(1936-01-19)January 19, 1936
Helena, Arkansas, U.S.
DiedSeptember 16, 2011(2011-09-16) (aged 75)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, musician, bandleader, composer
Instrument(s)Harmonica, drums
Years active1954–2011
LabelsRounder, Hightone, Electro-Fi, Telarc, Big Eyes

Willie Lee "Big Eyes" Smith (January 19, 1936 – September 16, 2011)[2] was an American electric blues vocalist, harmonica player, and drummer.[3] He was best known for several stints with the Muddy Waters band beginning in the early 1960s.


Born in Helena, Arkansas, Smith learned to play harmonica at age 17 after moving to Chicago, Illinois. His influences included listening to 78's 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. On a Chicago visit in 1953 his mother took him to hear Muddy Waters at the Zanzibar club, where Henry Strong's harp playing inspired him to learn that instrument. In 1956, at the age of eighteen he formed a trio. He led the band on harp, Bobby Lee Burns played guitar and Clifton James was the drummer. As "Little Willie" Smith he played in the Rocket Four, led by blues guitarist Arthur "Big Boy" Spires, and made recordings that were later reissued on the Delmark label. In 1955 Smith played harmonica on Bo Diddley's recording of the Willie Dixon song "Diddy Wah Diddy" for the Checker label.[4] Drummers were in more demand than harp players so Smith switched to drums and starting playing with Muddy Waters band. Smith recorded with Muddy on the 1960 album Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy, a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy.[5]

In 1961, Smith became a regular member of Muddy Waters' band, which then consisted of George "Mojo" Buford, Luther Tucker, Pat Hare and Otis Spann. By the mid '60s, he'd left the band for more steady work as a cab driver. In the late '60s he rejoined Muddy's band and remained a permanent member until 1980. 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[6]) 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 84 tracks.[7]

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.[8] 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, were 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".[9])

His first solo recording started in 1995 with Bag Full of Blues, with Pinetop Perkins, harpist Kim Wilson, plus guitarists James Wheeler, Nick Moss and Gareth Best. In 1999, Smith recorded with Muddy Waters' son Big Bill Morganfield on his album Rising Son. Smith's album Way Back (2006), contained 11 songs, half of which he wrote. He was backed by Johnny Rapp 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. Joining these two in the studio were Stroger, and his son 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, Smith won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for Joined at the Hip, an album he recorded with Pinetop Perkins. He 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.[10][11]


Smith died in Chicago following a stroke on September 16, 2011.[2]

The Blues Foundation Awards[edit]

Blues Music Awards[12]
Year Category Result
2011 Traditional Blues Album of the Year - Joined at the Hip (with Pinetop Perkins) Winner
2009 Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2008 Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2007 Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2006 Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2005 Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2004 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2003 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
2002 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
1999 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
1998 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
1997 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner
1996 Blues Instrumentalist - Drums Winner

Selective discography[edit]

As bandleader[edit]

2012 Live Blues Protected by Smith & Wilson (with Roger "Hurricane" Wilson) Blues (acoustic) Blue Storm
2010 Joined at the Hip (with Pinetop Perkins) Blues Telarc
2008 Born in Arkansas Blues Big Eyes Records
2006 Way Back Blues Hightone
2004 Bluesin' It Blues Electro-Fi
2000 Blues from the Heart Blues Juke Joint
1999 Nothin' but the Blues Y'all Blues Juke Joint
1995 Bag Full of Blues Blues Blind Pig

Legendary Blues Band[edit]

Year Title Genre Label
1993 Money Talks Blues Wild Dog Blues
1992 Prime Time Blues Blues Wild Dog Blues
1991 U B da Judge Blues Ichiban
1990 Keepin' the Blues Alive Blues Ichiban
1989 Woke Up with the Blues Blues Ichiban
1983 Red Hot 'n' Blue Blues Rounder
1981 Life of Ease Blues Rounder

With other artists[edit]

Year Title Artist Label
1964 The Blues of Otis Spann Otis Spann Decca
1966 Muddy, Brass & the Blues Muddy Waters Chess
1971 Live at Mr. Kelly's Muddy Waters Chess
1973 Last Night Carey Bell BluesWay
1973 Can't Get No Grindin' Muddy Waters Chess
1974 "Unk" in Funk Muddy Waters Chess
1977 Hard Again Muddy Waters Blue Sky
1977 Nothin' but the Blues Johnny Winter Blue Sky
1978 I'm Ready Muddy Waters Blue Sky
1979 Muddy "Mississippi" Waters – Live Muddy Waters Blue Sky
1981 King Bee Muddy Waters Blue Sky
1997 Born in the Delta Pinetop Perkins Telarc
2007 Breakin' It Up, Breakin' It Down Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, James Cotton Epic
2010 Live! in Chicago Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band Roadrunner


  1. ^ Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues – A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishers. p. 163. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  2. ^ a b "Willie Big Eyes Smith official homepage". Williebigeyessmith.com. September 16, 2011. Retrieved October 27, 2011.
  3. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
  4. ^ "WangDangDula.com". Koti.mbnet.fi. Retrieved July 11, 2015.
  5. ^ Strong, Martin Charles. The Great Rock Discography, Canongate U.S. (2004), page 1637 – ISBN 1-84195-615-5
  6. ^ [1] Archived January 3, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Komara, Edward M. Encyclopedia of the Blues, Routledge (2006) page 902 – ISBN 0-415-92699-8
  8. ^ Hanson, Karen. Today's Chicago Blues, Lake Claremont Press (2007), page 192 – ISBN 1-893121-19-4
  9. ^ Roberty, Marc, Eric Clapton: The Complete Recording Sessions 1963 – 1995, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1993
  10. ^ Uchiyama, Elizabeth. "Blue Kitty Music". lizmandeville.com. Word Press. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  11. ^ Vermilyea, John. "Liz Mandeville Clarksdale (USA)". bluesundergroundnetwork.com. The Blues Underground Network. Retrieved August 25, 2014.
  12. ^ "The Blues Foundation Database". Blues.org. Retrieved October 27, 2011.

External links[edit]