And the blues go on

Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith to perform at Blues Fest

Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith to perform at Blues Fest

May 24, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

At age 17, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith faced a tough choice: go back to family in Arkansas and pick cotton or take a junkyard job in segregated 1950s Chicago, where he was visiting family and friends.

Smith chose to step into the unknown, taking that job in Chicago. As it happened, he stumbled onto the music of Muddy Waters and made a name for himself as a Windy City drummer and harmonica player. Lately, the 73-year-old has been enjoying life at his home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.

Now, he is touting his latest record, "Born in Arkansas," a nod to his roots.

Smith will perform Saturday at the Western Maryland Blues Fest in downtown Hagerstown. The Blues Fest starts Thursday evening with a free mini-concert at University Park and wraps up Sunday with free, family-friendly fare at City Park. The slew of concerts Friday and Saturday at the city's central lot have always been the focal point of the event.


For decades, Smith was the drummer for Muddy Waters, backing Waters - who gave Smith the knickname "Big Eyes" - in the documentary "The Last Waltz" and, more recently, performing at the Kennedy Center Honors gala in December for a musical tribute to actor Morgan Freeman, one of the recipients.

Smith joins the ranks of the many black musicians who, sometimes thanklessly, helped push what was once known as "race" music to what we now know and appreciate as the blues.

"When did I start to slow down? Well, I don't know that I have slowed down," Smith said in a recent phone interview.

Smith's performance Saturday comes ahead of performances by Janiva Magness, The Mike Stern Band and Roomful of Blues. The Derek Trucks Band closes out Saturday night's lineup.

Smith got his start in the music business during the 1950s and '60s, when desegregation efforts were coming to a hilt. He recalled performing with Waters at a whites-only dance at Ole Miss.

"The youngsters really, really - I mean really - enjoyed the music," Smith said. "The only difference was when you took your intermission, it just wasn't no mingling."

Comparatively, Smith said he and the guys performed at a racially segregated dance for blacks in Birmingham, Ala.

"There were four or five carloads of white kids outside listening to the music and wanting to talk to the musicians," Smith said. "Not knowing what I know now, we invited them in. They said, 'No, we won't come in.' I understand now why they wouldn't come in."

Some of this music-as-a-social-unifier theme played out recently on the big screen, in the film "Cadillac Records." The film, which starred Beyonc Knowles and Adrien Brody, recounted the history of Chicago's Chess Records, the place Waters (played by Jeffry Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Knowles) called home. Smith said he had seen "Cadillac" and thought it was good entertainment.

"As far as the facts, maybe they stretched the truth here but not enough over there, so that's why I call it good entertainment," he said.

Stretched truths aside, "Cadillac" teases out an interesting irony. Even though some of the most popular black artists were crossing over to mass audiences, they often weren't rewarded fairly for their efforts. Sometimes, they had to watch as white artists "borrowed" their sound and saw meteoric commercial success.

Smith said despite his steady gigging with one of the most well-known blues outfits of the time, he was making more money driving cabs. In fact, Smith said he briefly gave up music to be a cabbie because of the better pay. He said it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that appreciation for the blues began to manifest itself in dividends.

"You know, coming from where I came from and where Muddy came from, and where most of the musicians who were playing that type of music came from, you really didn't think about it," Smith said. "Let's face it, you were doing better than you were doing in the cotton field."

He said it's the reason he decided to take the job in the Chicago junkyard.

But Smith is seeing some of the fruits of his labor. He's gushing about his win at the annual Blues Music Awards earlier this month, where he took the award for Best Instrumentalist-Drums and was nominated for Best Instrumentalist-Harmonica. Smith's son, Kenny "Beady Eyes" Smith, was a nominee in the best drums category. That was a sign of progress, Smith said.

"It was great to be in competition with your own self," Smith said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith performs at Western Maryland Blues Fest

WHEN: 3 to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 30. See the full Blues Fest schedule below.

WHERE: Central Lot, downtown Hagerstown. The lot is between East Washington and East Franklin streets, and North Potomac and North Locust streets.

COST: Tickets cost $40 at the gate, $35 in advance. Go to the Blues Fest's Web site at for tickets.

MORE: Check out Willie "Big Eyes" Smith's Web site, at

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