Featured Interview – Willie “Big Eyes” Smith

A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

Just by gazing at Joined at the Hip (Telarc), the collaboration between Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, it’s quickly evident there is no need for vocalization to illustrate the deep bond shared by the two distinguished gentlemen pictured on the cover.

The look on their faces say way more than any string of words ever could.

Ever since the ivory-tickling Perkins joined the Muddy Waters Band in 1969, a group that featured Smith on drums, the fire of friendship has burned bright between Pinetop and “Big Eyes.”

Unfortunately, Perkins recently left this earth, rejoining Muddy on the other side of the Pearly Gates, but his old pal “Big Eyes” offers up a reason while Pinetop, though now gone, will never be forgotten.

“Why did everyone love Pinetop? Because he was good, that’s why,” said Smith. “He loved what he did and he was good at it. It’s simple. That’s why we’ll always remember him.”

Though they were by no means spring chickens when Joined at the Hip was released in 2010 – Perkins was 97 and Smith was 73 – the album still found a place in the collective conciseness of blues lovers everywhere.

And oh yeah, it also won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album, making Pinetop the oldest living recipient of one of the music industry’s most coveted trophies.

Muddy is no doubt smiling in approval.

And as for Smith?

“It’s still sinking in,” he said. “I’m just a little ole speck and when you get hold of a big ole piece of gold, you gotta’ take your time and let it sink in.”

The reunion on record of Pinetop and “Big Eyes” was not done with some kind of a cosmic plan in mind, but rather as another chance for the two elder statesmen to cut loose, doing what they do best.

“It was the producer’s (Michael Freeman) idea for the name,” Smith said. “Pinetop was getting up in age – his mind may have been slippin’, but his fingers sure weren’t – and Patricia Morgan just decided that since Pinetop and I had been playing together on and off for 40 years – mostly on – it would be good for us to do something and call it Joined at the Hip. None of us was thinking about no Grammy or nothing like that. They just wanted us to do something together, like in the old days.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

History that culminated at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California.

“Now that was a surprise, even when they told us we had been nominated,” Smith said. “I just couldn’t believe it. Just to even be nominated was hard to believe. But when we walked away with it … I’ll put it like this – the man upstairs knows best, because everything seems to work out for a reason. It was sure in someone else’s hands.”

Joined at the Hip also took top honors in the Best Traditional Blues Album category at this year’s Blues Music Awards in Memphis.

Pretty cool stuff for a couple of cats that first crossed paths in Helena, Arkansas, back when Smith was just a young lad.

“I remember seeing Pinetop play around Helena,” Smith said. “And him and my auntie and uncle were friends, so that’s how I got to meet Pinetop for the first time. I was about seven years old.”

Smith was born in the town of Helena, and it was also there that he got the first taste of the music that would soon shape his life.

“When I was small, in the early 40s and 50s, the best thing they had there was Sonny Boy Williamson and that program on KFFA (King Biscuit). It was 15 minutes of blues every day and every day we’d try to make it home by 12:00 to hear the King Biscuit Boys,” he said. “And maybe one or two Saturdays a month, we had this place called the Miller Theater and they’d have people there playing the blues. I was kind of small then and some of them (performers) I can remember and some I can’t.”

After moving to Chicago when he was 17, Smith picked up the art of playing the harmonica and was soon keeping pretty busy by blowing harp all over the city.

And as Smith says, going from the small town environment of Helena, Arkansas to the wide-open, 24-hour a day happenings in the Windy City was “like walking on Broadway.”

“Oh, man. Things were different in Chicago, for sure,” he laughed. “Different than they were in Helena. But now West Memphis, that was another story. That was almost like Chicago back in the day. It may have even been better than Chicago. It wasn’t no big place, but they had what I call the heavy artillery there. All the players played West Memphis. And everybody knew everybody there. That’s where all the action was.”

Just as he started to find his way around Chicago as an in-demand harp player, even playing on chestnuts like Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” a new storm was brewing on the horizon, a force of nature that would have a direct impact on Smith’s career. A force called rock-n-roll.

“When I started out playing, the blues was doing pretty good. But in the middle to the end of the 50s, like Muddy said, ‘blues had a baby and they called it rock-n-roll,’ and that meant the blues started to take a backseat,’ Smith said. “It was a different generation. The music was the same, they used the same words and things, but they just speeded it up. And that’s what everybody liked.”

That new infatuation with that burgeoning form of music also proved to make it tough for a harmonica player to find steady work.

That’s when Willie “Big Eyes” Smith first decided to grab a pair of sticks and move to the ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ of the drums.

And the results were immediate.

“I went from playing just on weekends, playing my kind of music on the harp, to working throughout the week by switching over to the drums,” he said. “I started working five or six nights a week. I was still playing the blues, but I also played a little rock-n-roll, too. It wasn’t so much of an economic thing, cause weren’t none of us making any money, but the good thing of it was you got to play music and have fun.”

Chicago was certainly stocked full of inspirational drummers at the time and a couple of those – Elmore James’ drummer Fred Bellow, along with another alumnus of Muddy Waters’ band, Francis Clay, turned out to be mentors that Smith turned to while developing his craft on the skins.

“They both really influenced my style. I wanted to play like both of them,” said Smith. “And what can I say? I guess out of that, I just developed me – my style.”

That style has most definitely served Smith well over the years, whether he was holding down the backbeat for over 15 years in what would become Muddy’s last core band, or whether keeping time for The Legendary Blues Band, or on his own solo works.

It also gave a whole new generation of would-be drummers inspiration to pick up the sticks – including a young man right in Smith’s own house – his son, Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith.

As it turns out, “Beady Eyes” was a quick study. Playing in the true Chicago style that his father helped make famous, Kenny Smith has become a first-call session man and bandleader in his own right.

And as one would expect, father and son share a lot when it comes to laying down a groove.

“When I hear him (Kenny) play, I have to listen real close, because if I don’t pay attention to the little things that go on, I can’t tell him from me a lot of times,” the elder Smith said. “And I have a lot of fun playing with him. It lets me know that I’m moving on up the ladder. But I do have a lot of fun with him. I really appreciate him.”

Kenny Smith was nominated for a Blues Music Award (BMA) in the category of Best Instrumentalist for the second year in a row.

However, “Beady Eyes” has a ways to go before he catches up with his old man when it comes to the BMAs.

“Big Eyes” has won the Blues Music Award for Best Instrumentalist an incredible12 times.

Twelve times and counting, that is.

“I’ve got about 10 or 12 of those (BMAs) and a couple of years ago, I told ‘em that it would be nice if they didn’t put me in (the nominations) so some of the younger people could have a chance to get recognized,” Smith laughed. “But I’m nominated once again this year … so I guess they just didn’t listen.”

Blues Music Awards … Grammy Awards … it’s got to be a bit surrealistic for a country boy from Phillips County, Arkansas to be hailed as one of the best at what he does.

“Well, I don’t consider myself to be the best, but I do know my job,” he said. “And if you know your job and can be the best you can … that’s all you can do. But as far as winning it, it does make me feel good. Because over the years, I’ve worked, but never really tried to win anything (awards). If I can just get up there and play, that makes me feel good, too. But it also makes me feel good that people know that I’m still around.”

Relevant as ever, Smith was also recently a part of another BMA-winning album, Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Live! In Chicago, a disc that won for Rock Blues Album of the Year at this year’s Blues Music Awards. Smith blows some gritty harp and handles lead vocals duties on a simmering version of “Eye to Eye.” He even engages in a bit of harmonica-guitar back-and-forth with Shepherd in the middle of the tune.

For Smith, getting on stage and jamming with groups like the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is just another way to make sure the traditions and ways of the past continue to live, breathe and grow.

“I think some of the young bands we got these days are real good. That means the blues are in good hands,” Smith said. “And we’ve (the older generation) got to show them what we know. It wouldn’t be worth having if you can’t pass it on to someone else and that’s what I want to do. Pass the blues along to the young ones, just like it was passed to me when I was in their shoes.”

That’s probably never been as important as it is these days, when making a living out of playing the blues can be one tough order of business.

“Well, I don’t call it hard work, or really work at all,” Smith said. “I call it having fun. I’ve been fortunate enough to make it through the lean times playing the blues. I’ve been able to feed my family and keep a roof over their heads and that’s the most important thing. There have been some lean times, but you just use what you got.”

And Smith plans to keep on using what he’s got for as long as the good man upstairs will allow. There will be no slowing down or putting up the drumsticks and harmonica in the near future for Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

“Nope, not until they do me like Pinetop,” he said. “I’m going to play right until the end. My intentions are to keep doing what I’ve been doing for quite a few years and then just lay down and go to sleep and don’t wake up.”

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