Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith: Blues drummer and harmonica player renowned for his work with Muddy Waters

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith was a stalwart of the Chicago blues scene. A multi-award winning drummer, best known for his long tenure in Muddy Waters' band, he had more recently emerged as a bandleader in his own right and, earlier this year, won a Grammy for his collaboration with the veteran pianist, Pinetop Perkins, Joined at the Hip.

He was born in Helena, Arkansas, home to the world's longest-running daily radio show, King Biscuit Time on KFFA. Hosted by "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, it gave prime exposure to a number of important blues musicians, including Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Listening to the show nurtured Smith's interest in music, as did a visit to Chicago, where he saw Muddy Waters play at the Club Zanzibar and was drawn to the work of the band's harmonica-player, Henry "Pot" Strong, a promising talent who was murdered by a jealous girlfriend shortly afterwards.

Smith took up the "harp" while in his late teens and relocated to Chicago where, in 1954, he formed a trio with guitarist Bobby Lee Burns and drummer Clifton James. As Little Willie Smith he backed Bo Diddley on a number of the latter's seminal Checker recordings such as "Dancing Girl" (1955) and "Who Do You Love?" (1956), and worked, too, with Johnny Shines and Arthur "Big Boy" Spires". Having decided that his choice of instrument was limiting his opportunities for work, he joined Little Hudson's Red Devil Trio as a drummer; it would remain his primary instrument.

By 1959 he was working on an occasional basis with, arguably, the most important figure in the Chicago blues field, Muddy Waters, and by 1961 had replaced Francis Clay as the singer's full-time drummer. He continued, too, to undertake session work, supporting James Cotton, and in 1964 playing behind Big Walter Horton on his debut album The Soul of Blues Harmonica. That same year saw Smith leave Waters and, it appeared, a career as a professional musician. The Beatles had spearheaded a musical invasion of America that undermined several genres, the blues among them, and for four years Smith worked in restaurants and as a taxi-driver. In 1968, however, he chanced upon a Waters' gig and, after being asked to sit in, returned to the fold, where he remained until 1980.

He can be heard on many of the sides Water recorded during the 1970s, including the Grammy-winning albums, They Call Me Muddy Waters (1970), Hard Again (1977), I'm Ready (1978) and Muddy "Mississippi" Waters – Live (1979). He developed a firm friendship with Pinetop Perkins, later recalling that he had first encountered the pianist as a six year-old back in Helena. He drummed on Perkins' Boogie Woogie King project in 1976, and played alongside a number of local acts, including Homesick James and Carey Bell.

In 1980, he, Perkins, bassist Calvin Jones and the white harmonica-player Jerry Portnoy left Waters following a dispute with his management and formed the Legendary Blues Band. Initially augmented by guitarist Louis Myers of the Aces, they appeared behind John Lee Hooker, as group of street musicians, in the movie The Blues Brothers (1980) and became a major attraction in their own right, touring with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. The various permutations of the band recorded a series of albums for Rounder, Wild Dog Blues and the hip-hop label Ichiban, including Life of Ease (1981), Red Hot 'n' Blue (1983), the WC Handy Awards-nominated Woke Up With The Blues (1989) and Money Talks (1993). In 1999 Smith joined Muddy Waters' son, Big Bill Morganfield on the album Rising Son.

Having been named Drummer of the Year on a dozen occasions by the Blues Foundation, Smith increasingly reverted to the harmonica and proved himself a capable vocalist and songwriter. He recorded albums for Electro-Fi (Bluesin' It, 2004), Hightone (Way Back, 2006) and his own Big Eyes Records (Born in Arkansas, 2008), and in 2010 released a final project, Joined at the Hip, with Perkins, a disc that fittingly features his son Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith on drums.

Paul Wadey

Willie Smith, drummer, harmonica-player and singer: born Helena, Arkansas 19 January 1936 (married, one son); died Chicago 16 September 2011.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
people
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Arts and Entertainment
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
tv'Friends' cafe will be complete with Gunther and orange couch
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone