Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith dies at 75; blues musician

At 17, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith left the Arkansas farm where he was raised to travel to Chicago, where he first heard Muddy Waters when his mother took him to a club.

Inspired by the great bluesman, Smith never went home. Instead, he taught himself to play harmonica and drums.

Between 1961 and 1980, Smith played drums with the Waters band, combining his own deep feel for Mississippi Delta blues with Waters' unique Chicago sound.

While Smith can be heard on several of Waters' Grammy-winning albums, he was also awarded a Grammy for "Joined at the Hip," a 2010 collaboration with piano player Pinetop Perkins.

Smith, a longtime Chicago resident, died Sept. 16 at the University of Chicago Medical Center after a stroke, said his son, Kenny "Beady Eyes" Smith. He was 75.

After a lifetime of hard work, Smith was elated to receive a Grammy, according to blues guitarist Bob Margolin.

Playing harmonica, Smith formed a blues trio in the 1950s with harpist Clifton James and guitarist Bobby Lee Burns.

In 1955, he made his first recording, playing harmonica on Bo Diddley's version of "Diddy Wah Diddy," The Times of London reported last week.

To perform with another trio, Smith switched to drums in 1957 and began sitting in with Waters' band. Waters invited him to join the group in 1961.

Waters nicknamed Smith "Big Eyes" because "his eyes were always big when he played, or when he laughed," Smith's son said. "He had this humongous laugh."

Born on Jan. 19, 1936, in Helena, Ark., Smith was raised by his sharecropper grandparents. He grew up picking and baling cotton and listening to the blues. As a teenager, he took up the harmonica.

By 1964, he was burned out and needed a break from music, his son said, and largely left his career behind.

After a few lean years, Smith happened upon a Waters gig and rejoined the band in 1968.

"He got bit by the bug again, is how he put it to me," his son said.

Smith remained with the blues giant until 1980, when he left with other members of Waters' band — including Perkins, who died in March at 97 — to form the Legendary Blues Band.

The group backed John Lee Hooker in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers" and recorded several albums.

"If you wanted to see authentic blues guys, they were it," said Steve Cushing, host of the syndicated radio program "Blues Before Sunrise."

When he was nearly 60, Smith released his first solo recording, "Bag Full of Blues." His final project, "Joined at the Hip," featured his son Kenny, who is also a blues drummer.

Besides Kenny, Smith is survived by his wife of 42 years, Ilene; four sons; seven daughters; and 30 grandchildren.