In the Smith family, the “Eyes” really do have it.
And in the Smith family, like father, like son.
Not only does this father and son duo form the first family of old-school Chicago drumming, they also sport a pair of instantly-recognizable handles; Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith.
Legend has it that Willie’s long-time employer Muddy Waters’ band tagged him “Big Eyes,” after Muddy had first suggested that “Puffy Eyes” was an adequate nickname for Smith.
The reason that the younger Smith is known as “Beedy Eyes,” while not as colorful as his dad’s story, is nevertheless every bit as entertaining.
“All I remember is that it (Beedy Eyes) was written in a magazine, as kind of a joke, I think,” Kenny said. “I think someone was just trying to compare me to my father when I was first starting out and that’s what they wrote. And from that point, it stuck. That’s what everybody started calling me. I was branded with “Beedy Eyes.”
Sporting ocular-related nicknames are not the only common bond that Willie and Kenny Smith share.
Both are acknowledged as being among the elite drummers in the world of blues and roots-related music.
The elder Smith boasts 12 Blues Music Awards in the category of Best Instrumentalist – while the younger Smith finds his name in the ranks of those nominated for the award this year for the second year in a row.
“It’s great. Absolutely great,” Kenny said about being up for a BMA. “I mean, I just like to play. Awards are great, if I get them or not, but I love it (awards) more for the blues fans than for myself. I play for the blues fans, so it’s for them.”
When one of the greatest Chicago blues drummers of all time is your dad, it should come as no surprise as to whom Kenny Smith calls his biggest influence behind a drum kit. But the list doesn’t stop there. Nor is it limited to just blues drummers.
“Oh, man -I always liked Art Blakey a lot. I would just stare at some of his videos and my mouth would drop open at some of the things he would do,” Kenny said. “He was one of my favorites, you know, along with the rest of the blues heroes – I have a lot of respect for the guys that drummed in the 1950s and 60s. Guys like Earl Phillips, Francis Clay … the list could definitely go on and on.”
Before he even had an inkling that he would one day follow in the footsteps of his dad, Kenny Smith was exposed to a who’s-who of blues royalty. Although it should be noted, that at that time, Kenny Smith thought of the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Gatemouth Brown as more family than he did as iconic musicians.
“Back then, I just took it in like any kid would. I enjoyed the music and the socializing,” he said. “Before I even realized who a lot of those guys were that hung around at my parent’s house, I was really close with them and would even consider them to be family, because I saw them so much.”
And of course that includes Muddy Waters and his cast of prolific sidemen.
“Pinetop Perkins and Calvin Jones, Bob Margolin … they were just like family,” Kenny said. “And I really enjoyed their music – just hearing them play.”
In a cool twist, Kenny would go on to perform with a large majority of his dad’s contemporaries, especially after they realized that he was more than just “young Kenny ”- that he could lay down a mean blues shuffle with the best of ‘em.
Kenny’s evolution from a next generation bluesman to a first-call drummer didn’t take long and soon he was involved in sessions with the likes of Big Bill Morganfield, Honeyboy Edwards, Jody Williams, Kim Wilson and Junior Wells, just to scratch the surface.
Matter of fact, he’s so in demand when an authentic Chicago rhythm section is in order, that it’s a stone-cold wonder that Kenny can keep all his ducks in a row.
“I have a pretty tight system. I’m always in the books, making sure everything’s intact and I’m where I’m supposed to be and playing with who I’m supposed to play with,” he laughed. “I just have so many friends in the blues and I enjoy playing with all of them. So it took a few years of experience to get my system tight, but I have a good one now and can take care of things when I’m supposed to.”
It seems like lately, that whatever Kenny plays on, it quickly catches the attention of not only blues-loving fans all over the globe, but is also lauded as some of the best work to hit store shelves and burn up the airwaves, too.
Mississippi Heat, the Chicago-based outfit led by harpist Pierre Lacocque, won a 2010 Blues Blast Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Recording, and according to Kenny, the group has been logging plenty of road miles, all over the place.
“They’re doing pretty good, as far as performing,” he said. “In the States and also over in Europe, too. Pierre is doing an amazing job with the band and those guys are like family to me, too. I’ve been playing with them for over 14 or 15 years now.”
Another group Kenny is intimately involved with, the Cash Box Kings, won Blues Blasts’ 2010 Sean Costello Rising Star Award, based largely on their I-94 Blues CD.
“They’re part of my blues family, too,” he said. “The I-94 Blues CD was excellent and there’s another one in the works that should come out shortly. I know that for a fact.”
Relatively speaking, Mississippi Heat and the Cash Box Kings are fairly-young bands. But Kenny’s time-keeping on the Grammy-nominated Chicago Blues – A Living History, saw him working with a completely different band dynamic.
The two-CD set featured a core band of Larry and Matt Skoller, along with Johnny Iguana, Billy Flynn and Kenny Smith, backing an “A-list” of Chicago blues forefathers like Billy Branch, John Primer and Billy Arnold Boy, through an outstanding reading of traditional blues classics.
“I had worked with Matt (Skoller) before and we hit it off pretty good on the bandstand and his brother Larry saw me performing and that’s how we met,” Kenny said. “And Larry was the one that put that project together. He called me up and said he had a project that was going to be a good one and once he told me about it, I thought ‘This is great.’”
Great in the studio and great on the road.
“We did several tours and they were definitely high on my list as far as some of the tours I’ve done,” he said. “Everybody got along – no egos flying. Everybody wanted to do it for the music and we all took it in together as one. There were many musicians but we all came together as one.”
Fans of the first album can expect a follow-up offering to be available sometime this summer. “I think you guys are going to love this one, too,” Kenny said. “It’s got some great stuff on it.”
As if he wasn’t busy enough, Kenny just wrapped work on Catfish Fishing, an album by Muddy’s eldest son Mud Morganfield, slated for release sometime later this year.
Currently in post-production, in addition to Kenny, the album is buoyed by performances by Bob Corritore (who also produced the disc), Barrelhouse Chuck, Rick Kreher, Billy Flynn, E.G. McDaniel and Harmonica Hines.
”We just finished that about a month ago,” said Kenny. “There’s a lot of pretty cool original stuff on there. We just went in, cut it and I think there’s going to be some good music on there when it comes out.”
If it would seem like playing the blues for a living – playing with a lot of the same musicians on a variety of projects – could become boring or repetitive, Kenny says that hang-up never enters the picture.
“No, no, no … it’s never, ever the same thing over and over,” he said. “I can play with the same artist 100 times and 100 times it will be different. And I love what I do. Making some great music and trying to be a part of that wheel. So, no, it’s not the same-old, same-old.”
Following in the path of a famous parent has to come with its own set of unique challenges. Those challenges are probably doubled when you’re the child of a musician who grows up to play the same instrument their parent played.
But did son Beedy Eyes ever feel any pressure to live up to the expectations of dad Big Eyes?
“Absolutely not. It’s more of an honor than anything,” he said. “There’s never been any pressure of any kind. It’s just like any other son who idolizes their father and wants to follow in their footsteps.”
The blues may have even been running through Kenny Smith’s veins before he knew his dad had backed Muddy Waters on countless gigs for adoring fans all over the world. Kenny’s grandmother (Willie’s mother) also played a large part in introducing her young grandson to the blues.
“She was a huge blues fan. She would always put on blues songs and we would dance together,” he said. “So that kind of inspired me. And I remember the moment I said, ‘I want to do that (play the blues)’ At that point; I took it to heart and haven’t stopped since.”
Blessed with truckloads of natural talent and the desire to match, Kenny Smith would no doubt be a certified success in any style of music he chose to play. But luckily for blues fans, he chose to play the blues, helping to preserve a form of music his dad helped to craft.
“The blues will not die. That’s a fact. It has too much of an influence on people,” he said. “It will never be as commercial or popular as some music, but for the people who love and cherish it, they love and cherish it for life. It takes both musicians and fans coming together to preserve the blues. The blues is the blues and I don’t see it ever being any other way. And if you don’t understand where the roots come from, nothing will grow. If you can understand that, that’s half the battle. From the heritage point, it’s like a plant. You can’t grow the plant without the roots, no matter how you twist and turn it. And from there you grow – the sky’s the limit.”