Willie “Big Eyes” Smith – Way Back

Blues In Britain (2006)

Way Back" is an apt title for this set from one-time Muddy Waters drummer, Willie Smith, as it does exactly that - transporting the listener "way back" to the Chicago blues scene of the late 50s and early 60s with some classic/vintage Chi-Town blues.

Although building his reputation as a drummer, Smith has always been a talented harp player in the classic Chicago style, a talent he both proves, and exploits on this set - achieving this with the help of musicians like Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Bob Margolin, Billy Flynn, Bob Stroger, Calvin Jones, Bob Corritore, Kenny Smith, Little Frank Krakowski and Johnny Rapp - all players with a natural understanding and appreciation of vintage Chicago blues.

The set opens with Jimmy Reed's "Don't Say That No More", a loping blues with typically downbeat vocals and fine Chicago blues harp.  Billy Flynn's "I Want You To Love Me (Trust Me)", Little Walter's "Tell Me Mama" and Smith's own "If You Don't Believe I'm Leaving" stay in the Reed mould, with Bob Corritore, Smith and James Cotton, respectively, adding sympathetic high-register harp.

With the number of ex-Muddy alumni present, it was inevitable that his influence would permeate this set - and it does.  "I Don't Trust You Man" is pure Muddy - menacing vocals, rolling piano and Cotton's hot harp ensuring that this blues sounds as if it was plucked from Muddy's extensive catalogue of blues.  "Lowdown Blues" with its moaning harp (Corritore) and vocals, and tantalizing guitar (Flynn) - as does the lowdown "Eye To Eye" where Smith peppers his moaning harp with vocal interjections.  Bob Margolin's trademark slide meshes seamlessly with Smith's harp on "Blues And Trouble" - whilst "Woman's World" brings to mind "You need Love" with its pulsating bass and guitar riff, Smith adding fine warbling harp.  Surprisingly, the only Muddy cover on this set, "Read Way Back", finds Smith mining a frantic West Coast groove.

If you love those vintage Chicago blues sounds, then Willie Smith has delivered a set that has no option to be anything other than a priority purchase. 

Rating - 9

- Mick Rainsford


 

CBS Radio News (2006)

“Kristofferson is not the only the old dog with a new album. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith has ‘Way Back’. Smith is a longtime drummer for the Muddy Waters Band – and that’s him on harp – on Bo Diddley’s 1955 classic “Diddy Wah Diddy”. On the new disc he’s joined by a superior supporting cast including James Cotton and Bob Margolin. They put a drink in your hand and sawdust under feet. It’s Chicago gritty and jukejoint authentic.”

– Bill Vitka


 

Plan 9 Music (May 2006)

This bluesy batch caught me a little by surprise. Sure, I expected lots of great old school Chicago blues stuff with classic arrangements and spot on playing. But I somehow missed the fact that not only is Smith a solid blues drummer and former longtime Muddy Waters sideman but he’s a hell of a harp player and singer as well.

“WAY BACK” certainly set me straight on that as Smith wails his way through a tough set playing harp on seven songs and the drums on two while carrying all the vocals. The set features original tunes as well as songs by Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson and seasoned players such as Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Bob Margolin and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones are on hand to kick the raggedy thing in gear. But this is Smith’s showcase and a fine one at that…

The guy has tone and groove for days. This is a must for blues lovers and, if you’re like me and ignorant about Smith’s well-rounded talents, it will come as a pleasant eye opener.

– Ames Arnold


 

Spin Factor (Nashville City Paper) (May 9, 2006)

He’s best known as the greatest drummer in modern blues history, but before assuming that role in the Muddy Waters band, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was a fierce and gifted harmonica player whose slithering, wailing sound was featured on Bo Diddley’s 1955 classic “Diddy Wah Diddy.”

Smith finally returns to his first love on Way Back, delivering a mix of long bursts, shattering refrains and animated choruses. He also sings with warmth and fire on his originals (“I Don?t Trust You Man,” “Lowdown Blues” and “Eye To Eye”) and such classics as Little Walter Jacobs’ “Tell Me Mama” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don?t Start Me Talkin”.

Fortified by the contributions of an ensemble mixing established greats with emerging newcomers (including his son, Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith), Way Back jointly celebrates Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s vintage and contemporary blues excellence.

– Ron Wynn


 

Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange (2006)

Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is best know as the great blues drummer in the legendary Muddy Waters Band, here he steps forward as a most accomplished harmonica master. He started out as a harmonica player, but soon was sitting in on drums with Muddy’s band and soon was invited to join as the drummer, and this is where he sat for many years. Bob Corritore who produced this disc in Tempe, AZ, wanted to hear Willie step forward. On this disc “Big Eyes” wrote six of the eleven songs and does all the lead singing, and plays harp on all but two of the cuts, on which he plays drums, and Corritore fills in on the harp. His music is true to that traditional Chicago sound; with all those years of playing with the cream of the Chicago masters he has that “Chicago Shuffle” just pumping in his veins.

On this disc they have assembled an exemplary cast of Chicago players; Pinetop Perkins on piano, James Cotton on harmonica, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass, and Bob Margolin on guitar to name but a few of those who stepped up the plate. Not only have these players come to play, they are those long time pros who know what to do, and when to play and when to sit back. This is one of those rare discs, with so many heavy hitters, that though it could get cluttered they know whose disc it is and leave the space for the leader and then step in when called. This is one of those solid Chicago Blues Shuffle disc, grab it.

– Bob Gottlieb


 

Blogcritics.org (2006)

There’s a lot more to Willie “Big Eyes” Smith than his best-known role as the drummer in Muddy Waters’ band. His new CD finds the singer, composer, drummer and harmonica player in fine form at age 70.

Taking front and center on a mix of covers and originals, Smith leads a variety of top cats through a delightful eleven-song set of old-school Chicago blues. With Pinetop Perkins, that nonagenarian national treasure, on piano, and guest appearances by other notables including fellow Muddy Waters alums James Cotton and Bob Margolin, these songs incline mostly towards the joyful side of the blues, which is part of the reason I’ve hardly stopped listening to it since I got it.

Highlights include the Muddy Waters tune “Read Way Back”; Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic “Don’t Start Me Talkin'”; and Smith’s own wryly funny “I Don’t Trust You Man” and Howlin’ Wolf-style one-chorder “Woman’s World.” The beautiful original “Blues and Trouble,” a slow number played with only Margolin’s resonator guitar and Smith’s harp backing up the vocal, is the heart of the CD: “Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / I’m so stuck in the bottom and can’t see the light no more.” But Smith doesn’t stay down in the dumps for long, picking up the sticks to bang out the backbeat behind guest guitarist Billy Flynn’scomposition “I Want You To Love Me.”

Smith plays drums himself on only two tracks; his son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smithmore than ably handles skins duty on the rest. In spite of the variety of musicians helping out, the whole CD has the feel of a family affair. For authentic traditional Chicago blues played by some of the best in the business, look no further.

– Jon Sobel


 

BluesWax (May 4, 2006)

When you have a resume that includes “drummer for Muddy Waters”, you better know how to play the Blues. Mucho members of the great Muddy Waters Band have gone on to successful solo careers as bandleaders themselves from James Cotton and Jimmy Rogers to Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins, but Smith really hasn’t made a definitive record under his own name. Well, Smith’s Hightone Records debut may be just that. A solid set of good ole’ harmonica Blues featuring some longtime friends and co-workers. He even does a snappy version of Muddy’s “Read Way Back”.

Smith is primarily a harpist on this release and only plays the skins on two tracks. His solos are economical and tight in the school of Little Walter Jacobs and Jimmy Reed. Way Back kicks off with Reed’s “Don’t Say That No More”, which also features the magic piano fingers of Pinetop Perkins. In fact, the great one appears on every track sans two. Speaking of guests, James Cotton helps push track two, “I Don’t Trust You Man”, to the top of the stack.

This kind of playing is what turns routine Blues songs into special Blues cuts. Bob Margolin plays some fine guit-fiddle (as Albert King used to say) on a couple tracks as well, but this is Smith’s show. His locomotive blowin’ on the title track is a real treat as is Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith (Willie’s son) on the drums. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! He and bassists Bob Stroger and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones are an indomitable rhythm section throughout the proceedings. Smith channels Jerry “Boogie” McCain on his self-penned “Lowdown Blues”, but his best new cut is “Woman’s World” that trumps James Brown’s former declaration on global dominance by one of the sexes.

What really tops it off is the great studio sound, clear as crystal, that captures the full sonic grit coming from the Blues experts making the noise.

– Dylann DeAnna


 

Baltimore Blues Society’s Bluesrag (June 2006)

The first thing that strikes you about Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s Way Back is that the famed drummer is hosting one helluva harmonica album. Wherever a gap has to be plugged or a fill line needs addressing, there’s a wide-mouthed harp swooping through, or laying in, with a tone so fat and bold as to leave no doubt as to who’s the meanest bull in the pasture. Then, as you spy the cover art, and interrogate the session’s personnel more attentively, the second thing strikes you– this time like a 2X4 across the brow: Willie is actually the gale force behind those roaring reeds. So no longer are history buffs the only ones wise to his alter-ego.

Way Back provides vivid answer to the blues trivia question of “What instrument did Smith first play in the 1950’s, before locking down the drum stool for the Muddy Waters Band from 1961 to 1980?” In fact, Johnny Shines, “Big Boy” Spires, and, most historically, Bo Diddley (see 1955’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”) all benefited from Smith’s blowing in those days. Now, at age 70, that role is convincingly encored. And the likewise old-schooled support of folks like Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, guest James Cotton, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones (all fellow MWB alums), and son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (the newest version of ocular-distinguished drummers) always do him right. That means doing the altruistic ensemble thing of feeding a communal groove, of which Smith gladly partakes. So Jimmy Reed’s “Don’t Say That No More” pumps lazy-boy attitude, while Waters’ “Read Way Back” races the beat. His harp wah-wah’s like a baby through “Blues And Trouble,” as Margolin ‘muddy’s’ up the slide. And, of course, they know that proper Chicago protocol dictates lodging complaints (“If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving,” on which Cotton gets in his licks) and demands (“I Want You To Love Me”) deep within a shuffle’s pocket. Now if only Smith could also channel back Stormy’s Inn, Smitty’s Corner, and other extinct joints where he once prowled.

– Dennis Rozanski


 

No Depression (August / September 2006)

“Way Back” is a fitting album title for Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, whose career covers more than half a century, playing harmonica behind Bo Diddley and drumming for Muddy Waters. Smith makes a smooth transition from sideman to frontman on “Way Back”, writing six of the 11 songs and demonstrating a spirited vocal style as lead singer. He plays harmonica on seven tracks and drums on two others. “If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving” and “Eye to Eye,” two original compositions, find him full of vigor as he handles the classic blues themes of loss and regret. He sounds out a warning on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking” and pays tribute to harmonica wizard Little Walter on “Tell Me Mama”. The album has the feel of a Chicago blues reunion as Smith is joined by several alumni of Muddy’s bands, including James Cotton (harmonica), Pinetop Perkins (piano) and Bob Margolin. At 70, Smith shows that he and the blues still roll on.

– Tom Wilk


 

The Scene (June 2006)

WAY BACK: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, HighTone Records, May 2006. Production and sound quality are excellent. This album is best surprise I’ve had in a long time. Smith is primarily noted as the drummer on Muddy Water’s Grammy and W.C. Handy Award winning albums. But on this CD, he establishes himself as a moving vocalist, a classic harmonica wailer and an A-1 songwriter. The project has 11 tracks of traditional Chicago shuffle and jump blues, all winners. Six are Smith’s keen, old school originals. Blues luminaries James Cotton (harmonica,) Pinetop Perkins (piano) and Bob Margolin (guitar,) all Smith’s former Waters band-mates, join him. This CD grabbed my attention on the opening cut, Jimmy Reed’s “Don’t Say That No More”. Smith’s vocal presentation and the distinctive Reed groove are spot on. His tough harmonica solo is a gutsier version of Reed’s bleeding style. On his original, “I Don’t Trust You Man”, Smith delivers the whole Muddy Waters package, a neat trick. Cotton and Perkins contribute vintage solos. Smith’s renditions of “Read Way Back”, (Waters) and “Tell Me Mama” (Little Walter Jacobs) feature Smith’s Cotton-style harmonica hurricane and sturdy vocals. My favorite cut is Smith’s “Woman’s World”. It’s a pure Howlin’ Wolf groove with a Muddy Waters’ presentation; and Smith has the chops and feel to do right. Smith’s “Blues & Trouble” and “Eye To Eye” is timeless, slow-tempo, harmonica/guitar blues at its very best. This CD is a must for lovers of the genre, and earns the highest recommendation to anyone that would like to taste the hypnotic power of authentic, classic blues. Careful though, it’s addictive.

 

– Jim Shortt


 

Amazon.com (May 2006)

With too many pop-aimed “all-star” discs available, this union of journeyman players–featuring former Muddy Waters drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith—just doing their thing is refreshing. Especially since their thing is old-school ensemble-style Chicago blues, played with ironclad taste, feel, and authenticity. What’s new is that Smith cedes the drum seat to his son Kenny for most of these songs and compliments his weathered, Arkansas-born country voice with his own capable harmonica playing. James Cotton ups the harp ante on two cuts, and fellow Waters vets bassist Calvin Jones, pianist Pinetop Perkins (who’s 92), and guitarist Bob Margolin join in. Smith’s own “Blues and Trouble,” a spare, haunted duet with Margolin, is especially moving, right from their twined harmonica and slide-guitar introduction. Even on the band numbers there’s a respect for space and sonic detail that’s the work of masters delivering performances to support and complement each other. Somewhere in heaven, Muddy is smiling down at these men he mentored.

 

– Ted Drozdowski


 

Chicago Reader (May 12, 2006)

Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is best known as Muddy Waters’s longtime drummer, but he began his career in the 50s as a harmonica player, appearing on classic singles like Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”. In recent years he’s returned to his original instrument, and his latest disc, Way Back (Hightone), shows he’s lost none of his prowess. Smith’s raucous tone, dramatic swoops, and wide-ranging colorations recall Little Walter Jacobs, but he builds on Jacobs’s innovations instead of merely imitating them. Six of the album’s eleven tracks are Smith originals; on the mostly acoustic “Blues and Trouble” he and guitarist Bob Margolin invoke the eerie, seething intensity of Waters’s early Chess recordings, and the rollicking minor-key “Woman’s World” evokes both Howlin’ Wolf and Diddley with its single-chord drone and streetwise, cynical lyrics. Smith’s take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” proves he’s a gifted interpreter as well: his raw timbre recalls Williamson’s fabled belligerence, but the harmonic and melodic conceits are all his own. Retro blues projects like this too often wind up sounding fusty and archival, but Smith and his cohorts revitalize the old themes. The band for this show includes guitarist Little Frank Krakowski, bassist Bob Stroger, and Smith’s son, drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, all of whom play on the record. 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash, 312-427-0333, $10.

– David Whiteis


 

Montreal Gazette (May 18, 2006)

At the age of 70, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Muddy Waters’s long time drummer, is in fine form, singing lead, blowing some fine blues harp, and occasionally drumming on this cooking set of Chicago-style blues. Among the highlights are terrific versions of Waters’s Read Way Back and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Don’t Start Me Talkin’. There is joy at the essence of these old blues tunes and Smith and company, including venerable pianist Pinetop Perkins, know just where to find it. Along with such standards on this disc are six of Smith’s own songs, the masterwork of which is Blues and Trouble, a slow, very passionate song played as a duet with former Waters guitarist Bob Margolin.

– Mike Regenstreif


 

Blues Wax’s Blues Bytes (June 1, 2006)

BluesWax Sittin’ In With Willie

An interview from the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise

By Adam Harris

In 1961 Muddy Waters enlisted a 21-year-old drummer, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who would essentially define the shuffle feel of Muddy’s Chicago electric Blues. What some don’t realize is that before stepping behind the skins, Smith was a harmonica player, blowing for the likes of Arthur “Big Boy” Spires and Johnny Shines. It’s Smith you hear doing the wailing on Bo Diddley‘s Blues standard “Diddy Wah Diddy.”

That was 1955. Now, some 50 years later, Smith has picked up the Green Bullet microphone and stepped out as the bandleader of an elite team of Chicago Blues players for Way Back, which was released May 9 on Hightone Records.

At the ripe-young age of 70, Willie is still having the time of his life. “Big Eyes” Smith is part of one of the world’s most decorated Blues bands, the Chicago Blues Legends group (featuring Bob MargolinPinetop PerkinsJames Cotton, and Hubert Sumlin) and on this particular week, he’s got one of the greatest gigs any Bluesman could ever want, a weeklong stint on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. For musicians on the Blues Cruise, “Bluesin’ on the High Seas” means boogying until you can’t boogie no more.

Willie “Big Eyes” Smith: You know, I’m enjoyin’ this so much, I was up late! I was out ’til six this morning. It was me and Buckwheat [Zydeco] and Zaccy (ZacHarmon) and we was just havin’ a helluva good time. Then after we left there we went to the piano bar and I left there at six o’clock this morning. [laughter]

Adam Harris for BluesWax: So you still want to immerse yourself in music?

WS: Not too late tonight! [laughter] I’m gonna get some dessert and I think I’m gonna settle in a little early this time. It’s just about havin’ a good time, that’s what it’s always been about.

BW: So tell me about the new album, you’re playing harp on this album?

WS: As you well know I was a harmonica player first and I decided that it would just be fun to step out front and lead the band again.

BW: So you got to pick out the tunes?

WS: Yeah, yeah, I got to pick out the tunes and there’s a few of my tunes on there and some that I’ve always loved and I got to take the lead on them, and kinda pick out the arrangements and it was just good fun, you know? I got a bunch of great players on there, you know, Mr. Pinetop [Perkins] is on there, Bob Margolin, [James] Cotton, I had such a great bunch of guys on there, having a big time.

It’s not about me bein’ the leader or none of that, it never was about none of that. It was just the love of the music. I just love to play, that’s all I can tell you about that.

BW: Were there any times when playin’ the Blues was too hard? Did you ever lose the passion or has it always been, “I’m just gonna play music”?

WS: I have quit. The only reason I quit was because I had a family and that was a time when the music wasn’t even cuttin’ the muster. I was playin’ with Muddy at the time, this was in the early ’60s– I quit from 1963 until ’65 or ’66, and I didn’t play for like three years.

BW: What were you doing during that time?

WS: I was driving a taxicab in Chicago. I was makin’ enough money to make ends meet. I did that for about three years.

BW: Did you ever think, in the beginning that you’d be able to make money out of the music you love?

WS: Never thought about it. It wasn’t about the money. If it had been about the money, I’d have quit two years after I started. [laughter] When I started I used to rehearse just two or three of us, like Clifton James, he used to play with Bo Diddley. Clifton James and I, we had a guitar player and we’d get up and rehearse for 12 or 14 hours a day, every day, it was an everyday thing. It wasn’t about the money because the first job we got was with this girl who was an exotic dancer that lived just across the street from us. After we started playing and got good, we’d have a crowd of people around us. And she danced at this place, so she said that the boss would like to have us in there.

She called him on the telephone and we were playin’ and he heard us over the telephone and said, “Yeah, tell em’ to come on in.” We was only makin’ like six dollars a night [laughter]. The shake dancers, that’s what they called ’em back then, they didn’t have to dance when they had a Blues band in there.

BW: Tell me about going out with Muddy. What was the reception like? Was it different than what you’d been doing at the time?

WS: Yeah, it was different, but at the time I was with a famous person. You felt good cuz you was workin’ with this person and we was all like one big happy family.

BW: So was he a strict leader? Did you have to play by the rules?

WS: In a nutshell, he was just a person. But in another nutshell he was more or less like a dad to me. I was just 22 years old when I started.

BW: I’m a pretty young individual; I just turned 24 this week …

WS: Aw, you ain’t nothin’ but a baby. [laughter] I got grandkids older than you.

BW: That’s right, nothing but a baby. I come from a different, younger generation. How do you speak to my generation? You know, to a lot of the people my age Hendrix is the Blues, and Clapton is the Blues. How would you direct someone like that who’s trying to seek out the Blues?

WS: I’ll put it this way, you got to pay your dues. But your dues is not as hard today as the dues was for people like Muddy Waters and me. I call myself a Johnny Come Lately, cause I came up on the end. It would be much easier now because it consist of business. Back then it was business, but then the musicians was doing it for the music, not the money. It was the soul of the music that they was doing it for. Sure a little money looked good, but it just got to be a business, just a business thing. It ain’t how good you are now, it’s who you know. That’s the music industry today; it’s really dog-eat-dog, you know.

I ain’t gonna eat no dog, but I got to work just as hard to keep the dog from eatin’ me! [laughter]

BW: The dogs are out to eat ya.

WS: That’s right. You better believe it. It boils down to the same thing. It’s what you’re in it for. It’s going to separate the men from the boys, that’s the phrase I use. It’s just that simple. If you’s gettin’ in it for the money, you can bet on one thing, you ain’t gonna be there long. You gonna be in and out.

BW: So if you were to recommend a Blues record to a young listener, what would you say is a good record to start on?

WS: It’s a matter of choice. It’s what really catches you first. No use in me tryin’ to make a figure at how many Blues players there is, and they’re all good in their own way, they’re all very good.

BW: So just build on that first taste?

WS: That’s right. You know if someone hears me play with the band, the first thing that hits ya, “He was influenced by Muddy Waters,” you know that right away. So who was the next guy that caught his ear at the time? It might be someone you’re not familiar with, but it’s good music. There’s so many good players out there and sometimes they made a record and they didn’t get the recognition that some got. And no matter what it is, or how good it is, there will always be just a few that gets through the hole.

BW: I was having this conversation today. I’d like to think that if the music is good enough it would get heard, one way or the other, but it’s just not like that. There’s stuff that makes it out that doesn’t really need to be heard and there’s plenty of good stuff that never gets heard.

WS: That’s right. It always has and I guess it always will be, ’cause everybody couldn’t fit on the top.

BW: No. It’s lonely up there.

WS: [laughter] So that’s why you thank God for what you got and accept it. And do the best you can. I feel just as good- I don’t care how good the next person is, I feel just as good knowing that I did, musically, the best that I could do, and I’m happy with that.

BW: Did you have any experience with Little Milton, the man to whom this Blues cruise has been dedicated?

WS: Milton and I communicated, just before he passed. I knew he was supposed to be on this cruise. We did a festival somewhere in the last couple weeks, I think we were in New York on the same bill. We were talkin’ and jivin’, about the cruise and then I guess a week after that he had his stroke. I never did play with him, we just communicated.

BW: Is this a special gig, being out with Bob Margolin on this Chicago Legends tour?

WS: Well, you know, ain’t anybody really doin’ nothing special. You do what you do and if it comes from the right place, then it’s special. He started out young too and he’s paid his dues. He’s good. We’ve worked together a long time so it’s always a pleasure to go out and play with him.

BW: You’ve seen a lot of cities with this group of gentlemen. . .

WS: Yeah, I don’t know what city I ain’t seen.

BW: So if you had to play one more place, where would it be?

WS: [Ponders this for a bit, and repeats the question with some more thought] One more place…where would it be…It could be in your bathroom and I’d feel just as happy.

BW: [Laughter] Answered like a true professional!

WS: [Deep Laughter] It could be in your bathroom as long as it feels good.

BW: Well, I’ll look into that.

Adam Harris is a contributing editor for BluesWax, and is still working on that “Big Eyes” gig in his bathroom. 


 

Living Blues (May / June 2006)

Before he became one of the world’s most premier shuffle drummers, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was a harpist who played and recorded with Bo Diddley (Diddy Wah Diddy), Arthur “Big Boy” Spires, and others. He has now returned to the instrument of his youth.

Muddy alumni abound here: featured, in various combinations, are James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, bassist Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, and Bob Margolin. Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Willie’s son, holds down the drummer’s stool on most of the cuts. Willie’s harmonica (enhanced by a Chess-like echo) is evocative of Little Walter in both tone and melodic ideas. His vocals also sound modeled on Walter’s. He rollicks his way through Walter’s Mean Old ‘Frisco-style Tell Me Mama with the kind of irony-laced blues jubilance that makes betrayal, confrontation, and even the threat of violent confrontation sound like a party instead of a tragedy waiting to happen. His harp work is full-bodied and varied-he wah-wahs, screams, buzzes, and swoops with unbridled, joyful abandon from beginning to end.

On Blues And Trouble Smith and guitarist Margolin invoke the haunting (and haunted) Delta-to-Chicago postwar blues mythos with eerie intensity. Don’t Start Me Talkin’ adds no new dimensions to the Rice Miller original, but it’s a kick to hear musicians who really understand this kind of music do justice to it-and Smith wisely chooses not to imitate, preferring instead to meld an approximation of Miller’s legendary tonal belligerence with his own stripped-down but effective melodic conceits. Cotton blows like a demented hawk on I Don’t Trust You Man and If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving, the two tracks on which he’s featured.

Retro outings like this too often betray the original music by replacing spirited abandon with fusty reverence. But this set makes one feel as if the spirits of the ancestors have been resurrected-and they’re dancing in jubilant gratitude at the way Smith and his cohorts have honored their legacy.

– David Whiteis


 

Blues Revue (August / September 2006)

Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, one of the most accomplished practitioners of traditional postwar Chicago blues, has been a vital part of the Windy City scene since 1954. His perfectly inflected shuffle drove the Muddy Waters band through the 1970s and the Legendary Blues Band through the 1980s. Not quite a household name, his own legendary status is confirmed by the multiple Handy and Grammy awards he’s won from his spot on the drum riser. More recently, Smith has returned to his original instrument, the harmonica. On Way Back, he revisits four vintage songs, adds one from guitarist Billy Flynn, and submits half a dozen of his own contemporary tunes to round out a note-perfect evocation of Chicago’s heyday.

On his jaunty shuffle If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving, Smith affirms his independence to his doubting lover as James Cotton blows piercing fills and a throaty harp solo. Cotton also provides tough accompaniment on I Don’t Trust You Man, a stop-time number that showcases Smith’s wry sense of humor (“I can’t trust you/’Cause you don’t have no prints on your hands”). Lowdown Blues explores a frustrating relationship and the ameliorative draw of the blues through a crafty verse structure; Flynn turns in a subtle instrumental break and expertly interweaves lines through Bob Corritore’s harmonica solo. Bob Margolin adds superb, Muddy Waters-style slide to Blues And Trouble, and the spirit of Smith’s old boss also informs the slow, deep blues Eye To Eye, which tells the age-old lament of a good man loving a bad woman. Possibly the most interesting of his songs is the hypnotic, one-chordWoman’s World, wherein Smith concedes that the fairer sex’s charms give them true power. Flynn’s I Want You To Love Me is a dandy Jimmy Reed-style shuffle.

Covers are well-chosen: Sonny Boy Williamson’s Don’t Start Me Talkin’, Jimmy Reed’s Don’t Say That No More, and Little Walter’s Tell Me Mama are magnificently played and sung. More obscure is Waters’ Read Way Back, energetically bumped along by Bob Stroger’s bass and featuring terrific, Little Walter-inspired harp from Smith. The entire cast contributes to the success of Way Back: Smith’s old bandmate Calvin “Fuzz” Jones guests, while the core band includes Stroger, Johnny Rapp and Little Frank Krakowski on guitar, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums, and the just-as-legendary Pinetop Perkins on piano. Way Back is certain to sit among the year’s best traditional blues releases.

– Tom Hyslop


 

Juke Joint Soul (May 15, 2009)

Before Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was a drummer, he was a harmonica player. Most people know him from Muddy Waters Band of the late sixties and seventies. Now, he’s one of blues most beloved treasures. This 2006 effort, in retro review here at JJS, really brings Smith to the forefront for the first time as a full-fledged frontman on harp and vocals. With a star-studded cast of old friends and true blues bloods, this album was truly a highlight of 2006 and I’ve been itching to get my hands on it for quite some time.

The album kicks off into overdrive with Smith giving a good reading of Jimmy Reed’s “Don’t Say That No More”. Son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and the bassologist Bob Stroger hold down the strong, steady lump-de-lump on this signature shuffle. “I Don’t Trust No Man” has a vibe similar to Muddy Waters’ signature “Mannish Boy” and talks about the trifles of not trusting a man around his woman. James Cotton guests on some magnificent harp stylings, while Smith gives full force on the vocals with Muddy-styled bravado. Speaking of Muddy, Smith re-reads the Waters’ classic “Read Way Back” with a little bit more of a drawn out affair and a bit of a frenetic pace. The harp solos aren’t anywhere near Little Walter’s originals (nor is anyone’s for that matter). This modern update is a little clunky but still a fairly well read but not often covered song. Here we go with correlation, speaking of Little Walter, Smith strikes up a fairly toned-down version of “Tell Me Mama”.

Smith breaks out into his own music after that with fairly standard but vibrant Chicago blues fair on “If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving,” the almost Delta-fied slow blues of “Lowdown Blues” (which is my personal favorite and the spine-tingler of this set), and the Jimmy Reed-esque “Blues and Trouble.” Producer Bob Corritore lays down some mean slow blues harp licks on the aforementioned “Lowdown Blues” and Bob Margolin gives some nice, poignant solos on “Blues and Trouble”. Old friend Pinetop Perkins, who’s a constant on every track but two, also gives a wonderful solo on “Blues and Trouble”. In fact, Perkins work throughout the disc is better here than on his own discs of the past two years.

The album is pure Chicago. You’re not going to get any more traditional than this. Contemporary fans might call this album reinventing the wheel; but I think they’ll miscalculate if they only look that far. Smith is part of the heavy hitters and hard players of Chicago’s second generation of traditional blues artists. In essence, he’s helped shaped some of the stuff that we see as “standard” today in our modern era blues. This album help spawn renewed interest in Smith as his own man, not simply standing in the shadow of his days as Muddy Waters’ drummer. This album has also since spawned a sequel, which I’m still itching to get my hands on, too. It just goes to show you, you can’t get enough of the Chicago blues, especially when it’s this pure and good.

– Ben the Harpman

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