R.I.P Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

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R.I.P Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

Postby dcblues » Fri Sep 16, 2011 11:00 pm

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Re: R.I.P Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

Postby Ben Covington » Sat Sep 17, 2011 7:14 pm

When Smith was in the UK with the Blues & Gospel Caravan May 1964 the late Mike Leadbitter interviewed him at length. What follows are the results being the first published piece about Smith. (Blues Unlimited 13, July 1964 p. 6-7). Mike Vernon wrote a shorter feature about him for R&B Monthly but can't find that issue.

WILLIE SMITH

When I spoke to Billie Stepney, he said that, in his opinion, the best drummer in Chicago was Willie Smith. After seeing Willie in action I'm sure that Billie was right. Besides being a truly great musician, he is also a co-operative and pleasant person. Never did the grin on his face disappear even under the barrage of questions shot at him. Here is his story:

Willie Lee Smith was born in Helena, Arkansas on January 19, 1936, and though his mother moved to Chicago, Willie was raised by his share-cropping grand-parents who worked at the Wooton Epps Plantation, about six miles out of Helena. At an early age he had to start work on the farm; ploughing, tractor driving and cotton chopping. He also tried construction work, but disliking this way of life resolved to find an easier career for himself. This idea became a reality when, never having any luck with a girl he'd fallen for, he decided to become a musician and get all of them! Willie had always dug the blues. In Helena, over the radio, he'd listen to Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love on the "King Biscuit Show" or he could tune in to WDIA out of Memphis and catch B.B. King and Rufus Thomas. When he was able, he'd catch these people when they made a personal appearance locally. On top of all this, he had Robert Nighthawk farming next door to him for several years.

When he was seventeen, Willie went to visit his mother in Chicago for a two weeks holiday. The first thing she did was to smuggle him into a club where Muddy Waters was playing. Here he listened to someone called Pat, and Little Walter on harmonica. He liked their sound so much that he bought a harp and started trying to copy them. When his two weeks were up, he decided to stay in Chicago and blow a harp rather than go back to Helena to help with the Cotton. He came to know another blues admirer called Clifton James and they both liked Freddy Below's drumming so much that they decided to learn drums together on a kit supplied by Willie's mother. Willie never did use that kit much, preferring to drum on a chair which he used as a practice board.

In 1954, Willie and Clifton decided to form their own trio and put into practice what they had learned. With a guitarist called Bobby Lee Burns, they got a few club dates and held together until 1955, when Willie married and quit music for a time. During this time, Willie was still "honeymooning" and turned him down on the job, but consented to do a record date for Bo which produced "Diddy Wah Diddy".

In 1956, Willie was back on the scene again and got a job playing harmonica for Big Boy Spires in a combo that included Uncle Johnny Williams on guitar and Ted Porter on drums. He stuck this for three months and then decided to get his own band together. Still playing harmonica, he engaged Bobby Burns and Tehnio High to play guitars and "Dennis" on drums, but after a spell at "Robbin's" the responsibility proved too much for Willie and the band broke up; Late in the same year he got a job as drummer with Little Hudson's Red Devil Trio, but was fired in September, 1957 after a drunken incident.

After a holiday, Willie joined the Muddy Waters Junior band as drummer, staying with it until 1958. In the band were George Buford, Jo Jo Williams and David Myers. He quit to join Willie Johnson who had fallen out with Howlin' Wolf and started up on his own. He hired Lee Jackson and Willie to back him up, but the combo soon broke up, Willie moving on to join a new band led by J.J. Williams with Alex Rammell[*] on harp and Little Smokey Smothers on guitar. This band held together until 1960 and even went into Mississippi to fill dates. While with it, Willie recorded with James Cotton, Jo Jo and Muddy Waters. Muddy had heard him at "Smitty's" and took him along to a record session in August 1959.

From February through March 1960, Willie could not get any work as a musician and had to work in a restaurant. The money situation became so bad, that he had to draw relief help out. Depression set in and he decided to quit music, even taking his drum kit along to the pawnbroker's to raise money. It was shut. In disgust Willie returned home and slung his kit in the closet. The situation did not improve until Willie went along to listen to Muddy one night and found that his urge to play again was so strong, that he asked to sit in with the band. The next day he found a note on his door telling him to go and see Muddy about a job. He jumped in his car and went round to Muddy's house, but not finding him there, went on to the "Swaine Club", where Muddy was playing at the time. He waited until Muddy had finished the set and then, at a sign, went outside with him. The result was job that has lasted up to now. A situation with which Willie is content.

Today, he is still happily married with six children. He fills in his off music hours by driving a cab. Money and life are both good and he greatly enjoyed the trip to England. I sincerely hope that we shall get a chance to see him in this country again soon.
Mike Leadbitter

* Alex Rammell (most likely to be a mishearing of Alex Randle aka Easy Baby)
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