Willie “Big Eyes” Smith
(January 19, 1936 – September 16, 2011)
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, in 2011, won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album for his collaboration with the veteran pianist, Pinetop Perkins, Joined at the Hip. 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. 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 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. 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. 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.