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Mon, 01.19.1920

Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Musician born

Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith

*Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was born on this date in 1920.  He was a Black musician (Harp and Drums).  From Helena, Arkansas, his grandparents, who were sharecroppers outside of town on the Epps Plantation, raised him.  

His connection to the Blues had many coincidences that linked him to his present life.  Robert Nighthawk had a farm next door; Pinetop Perkins lived nearby, and James Triblett (who was later Muddy Waters’ driver/valet) used to babysit the young Smith.   At 17, he went to Chicago to visit his mother but ended up staying. After hearing Muddy Waters and his band playing at a local club, he knew the Blues had to figure somewhere in his life. He first learned to play harmonica and then drums, and soon Willie and his friend Clifton James formed a trio with Bobby Lee Burns on guitar. At this point, Willie blew harp, and Clifton was on drums.

In 1955 he married his first wife and ostensibly gave up music. This did not last long, and in 1956, he blew harp for Arthur "Big Boy" Spires and soon went on to front his band on harmonica. Later he joined Luther HudsonShower's Red Devil Trio, and his career as a professional drummer began.  Willie Smith's main influences were Water's then drummers, Fred Below and Francis Clay. He even played in a band known as the Muddy Waters Junior Band, "a two-year initiation," as he called it. He would also play drums at Muddy Water's Sunday jam at Smitty's in 1960.

Then in 1961, he was summoned by his idol to play drums for his band. This started a close, long-standing relationship between the two men - "like father and son," said Willie.  Smith still played drums for the Muddy Waters Reunion Band and toured regularly with them. He lived with his second wife, Ilene, in the same house he has lived in for many years, just down the street from his old friend. His band, The Legendary Blues Band, travels all around, playing clubs from Milwaukee to Indiana. He recorded five CDs on the Ichiban label, including Keeping The Blues Alive, Woke Up With the Blues, and You Be the Judge.  

His last album out on Blind Pig Records is called Bag Full of Blues, with Kim Wilson lending his support. His CDs are filled with righteous Chicago Blues. Willie also won the WC Handy Award for Blues Drummer of the Year three years in a row, from 1996 to 1998.   Smith was the man who provided the beat for the Muddy Waters Band, and he kept up that impeccable beat for 13 years until Muddy's death.  Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, one of the great practitioners of a true American art form, was lost to blues fans around the world when he passed on September 16, 2011. 

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