“My father would say, push it! Push the envelope to make myself come into my own and keep on pushing the music even further, pushing myself even further.”
Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith is the son of the most iconic Chicago blues drummer in blues history. His dad, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, played drums on each of Muddy Waters’ six Grammy winning CDs. Hard shoes to fill. Ask Bernard Allison, son of Luther Allison; Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of Lonnie Brooks; or Mud Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters.
In the six years since his father’s death, Kenny has not only taken over the position as the go-to drummer in Chicago blues, he has “pushed the envelope” as he says to add bandleader, songwriting, production, booking other bands, piano playing, and “tooting” on the harmonica to his resume and/or repertoire. He is not just liked but adored by a list of blues royalty that goes on for several pages of endorsements on his webpage.
Talking to him is really a pleasure. This guy is just old-fashioned nice. And he flat out does not allow any of the issues like race, age, style, or repertoire that might plague the son of an icon to get in his way. He’s tight with just about everyone in blues from elders like Bob Stroger or younger artists like The Cash Box Kings. The disparate list of friends he’s worked with includes Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, Lurrie Bell, Tail Dragger and Kim Wilson. And that’s not one tenth of it.
“Kenny Smith is one of the last humans on Earth who actually knows how to play blues drums,” raves A. J. Love. “Kenny Smith is the greatest drummer I have ever seen. Period,” claims guitarist Tad Walters of Bob Margolin fame. Matthew Skoller calls him “a contemporary blues master.” Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records says simply, “If you’re looking for a drummer who can play any style of blues or traditional R&B with soul and sensitivity, look no further than Kenny Smith.”
“I’m at a point where I’m carrying on the music in a way that my brain sees it,” explains Kenny who is focused on his career without ever sinking into hyperbole or braggadocio. “I’m making the music come out, painting a picture the way I see it. I’m doing a lot of shows under my own name, playing the music I feel I grew up on and that I like because I’m doing those things.”
So, what makes Kenny tick? How does he avoid the angst that’s almost a prerequisite for getting so deep into the blues? First off, he comes from a family that’s well adjusted.
“My grandmother – my father’s mother, Lizzy Mae Smith – I’d have to say influenced my father. She took him out to see Muddy (Waters) play. From that point, that’s when my father really took notice of the music. So, she really was a living part of the music for us. She loved music. She had a huge collection of Lightnin’ Hopkins. I know she loved them, and she would dance all the time. That was her thing. That record player would be going with those records 24/7, and she would be dancing a lot – a lot. I’m not talking about just the holidays. I’m talking about a lot of days.”
“She would pull all of us out as little kids and make us dance with her. After that, it got so common, we’d do it on our own. We would do it, too. So, yeah, that’s a fond memory.”
Lizzy Mae lived with the family.
Second of all, even though his father was on the road a lot, he also spent time with Kenny who rubbed shoulders with Muddy Waters at rehearsals in daddy’s basement. “I mean, one thing if you’re around as a kid, you’re around it (the blues) your whole life. It’s what you know. You see your father doing it constantly, definitely you’re gonna get good at it. You’re gonna take notes. You’re gonna start really investigating that, seeing what it’s about.
“I remember when I was four and five years old (Muddy Waters’ band) was rehearsing in the basement, and I’d say I’m gonna go and really check this out, see what they’re doing and see them play the music and watch them have fun as they was doing it. The music somewhere in there grabbed me, and from that point I feel it drawed a stronger connection between me and my father first. I have a strong connection with my father, with or without the music, but putting that other piece in the puzzle right there definitely took it up a heck of a lot of notches from my experience because it was like just learning, learning from him. So, it was like a way to connect on another level.
“He was on the road for sure, but when he’d be home I mean I don’t think they (the band) were ever fully apart. When they were home, they would be at the house rehearsing in the basement or hangin’ out at somebody’s house. They’d be hanging out at Pinetop’s house and tagging along would be me.”
But Kenny never let the temptations his father had in his touring experience sidetrack him. “He was a great musician, but overall definitely a great father. I really appreciated that. He was a great father. He was very knowledgeable, and we enjoyed each other’s company. (But) I think he partied harder than I can even now. (Chuckle) In his later years I felt like he’d go out to party, and I’m going to go to sleep.”
Kenny advanced his father’s drumming techniques with what he calls the triple blues shuffle. “You get totally different styles of shuffles. You get that double shuffle. I could do a triple shuffle and over times, yeah, I figured it out. It’s all about the technique. I cannot explain it in words. I know I can play it. I do it all the time. I really do. I can’t put it like, ok, you do it like this. I can’t say it like that, but I learned it. I figured it out, and I liked it. As my father would say, ‘push it.’ That part of me is like me coming into my own, and that’s the difference between me and my father.”
Kenny describes his musical relationship with Muddy Waters’ son, Mud Morganfield as like peanut butter and jelly. “I’m the peanut butter.” Mud feels the same way. “I look at Kenny Smith as family. Not only because of the relationship my dad and his dad had, but because of him, my brother. He is one of the greatest drummers in the world. He talks about me not falling far from the tree, but he is more than what Willie and his mom could have expected of a son.”
There is a fundamental difference between Mud and Kenny. Muddy was rarely around for his son, but Kenny and Willie were always close.
Muddy Waters’ piano player Pinetop Perkins gave Kenny the nickname Teenachi. “Even when I was first born I was really, really, really tiny. So, all my sisters wouldn’t call me tiny, but they would say Teena. So, Pinetop he just made it into his own thing. All the elders would say Teenachi, but it came from that. Even more funny, I answered to it. (Chuckle)”
Bob Margolin was Muddy Waters’ guitarist when Kenny was a child: “Kenny carries on the drumming sound, style, and legacy of his legendary father while adding his own responsive and exciting versatility. He also carries on the friendliness and grace of the older generation of Chicago Blues legends like Hubert Sumlin, Bob Stroger and, of course, his father. With all that going on, when Kenny sings, either behind the drums or in front of the band, he shows that he’s a soulful blues singer and captivating entertainer too. You can’t hear Kenny or meet him without walking away with a big smile.”
“Bob Margolin, all of those guys, they’re family,” says Kenny. “That’s what I knew growing up. I seen them. They seen me before I was grown. That’s how much I was involved and always around those guys: Jerry Portnoy, Bob Margolin, Alvin Fuzz Jones, Guitar Junior, Pinetop Perkins, all those guys I would see so much. So, it was like they was definitely considered family to me.”
And it’s not just the old guard. For years, Kenny has played on and off for Mississippi Heat fronted by Frenchman Pierre LaCocque: “Indeed, his drums sing with the band and his timing is impeccable. A human metronome! He is also an uncanny listener. He adds rhythmic touches to whoever leads a song, be they a singer or a lead instrument. He is a subtle player, never loud, always soulful. Kenny is a dream to play with, and he is one of my closest friends though he is half my age. I consider him a member of my family.”
“I don’t care where you come from,” says Kenny about LaCocque and others he plays with regardless of age, race, or country of origin. IT’s all about the music. “We are human, all human beings. We all have the blues. You can have the blues. That doesn’t really bother me at all ’cause we all have it, and we all can feel that, all of us.”
Joseph Nosek, singer/songwriter and harmonica player for the Cash Box Kings: “Perhaps what is most remarkable about Kenny is how well he listens to his band mates while he is playing with them and his almost telepathic ability to anticipate and respond to their playing at any given second during a live performance or recording session. It’s an honor for me to be a friend of his and play music with him on a regular basis.”
“I don’t really talk controversial about the music,” says Kenny. “Cash Box Kings, they play the blues of 1950. Lurrie Bell comes from a history of long lines with Carey Bell and the rest of his family playing blues. I can’t separate. Blues is blues to me. I can’t separate it in my head like this person and that person. If I like it, I like it, you know? That’s all I really can say with it. I like Lurrie Bell and I like Cash Box Kings, too.”
Bass player Bob Stroger who in his 80s decided to start writing songs says, “Wow, Kenny is one of the nicest guys I know. He is a gentleman and a good business man, and Kenny is the best blues drummer in Chicago. I love working with him, and we do lot of work together, and he is my friend and just like my son.”
“Absolutely,” says Kenny, “and I feel equally the same way about Bob. That’s a fact. We talk on a daily basis. Even when we’re not on the road, we check in on each other, seeing how everybody’s doing. That’s a fact.”
James Cotton was Muddy Waters’ harmonica player before Kenny was born. Cotton passed away on March 16th. “James and Jackie would always be at the house. Jacqueline would come to the house a lot. I seen him many years as I seen Pinetop and Bob Margolin. When I heard that news, it’s like losing a relative for sure. I would always wake up. If I wanted to get motivated in the morning time, I would take his CD and listen to “The Creeper.” That always motivated me to get the day going ’cause that was it. That was my song to get the day going right there.”
Both James Cotton and Kenny’s dad Willie were born and grew up in Helena, Arkansas, home of the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA and the King Biscuit Blues Festival. “They were so close,” recalls Kenny. “When they got ready to say goodbye to each other, they wouldn’t just shake hands, they would kiss each other on the cheek and a hug and say bye every time. That’s how close they were.”
Kenny views his position in the blues world as a spoke in the wheel. He looks at creating music as being like painting and he uses his dad’s style as a jumping off point for his own muse. He plays drums, sings and leads his own band and is proud of his legacy.
“Besides that, I’m booking bands. I’m probably working with 100 different musicians in Chicago. They all don’t go out at the same time, but I do get quite a few of them out depending on what it is, what’s happening. With my own project, always me and Bob Stroger get together all the time.”
Kenny sees himself as more than an extension of his dad. “I think every man is his own man to a degree. I learned so much from my father as any kid would. If you grow up with him, you idolize him. You walk like they walk, all of those things when you’re growing up. I do believe you have your own personality, too. My father loved playing the drums. He loved the harmonica, he loved playing the piano. I think I took it a couple of extra steps further which he wanted me. I try to stretch even further. I’m that way, I don’t know if it’s any different, but he told me those things, too. Push, keep pushing. So, I think in that way I strive. I strive real hard. Make things happen and live the life I want to live.”
Visit Kenny’s website at: http://beedyeyes.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.