Grammy-winning blues legend Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, 75, passed away this morning in Chicago after suffering a stroke according to a statement on his official web site.
Smith may be best known for the time he spent as the drummer for Muddy Waters' band. Prior to drums, he taught himself to play harp and in later years spent more time with that then he did behind the drum kit. He co-founded the Legendary Blues Band after parting with Waters in the early 1980s and released his first solo record in 1995.
Both Smith and pianist Pinetop Perkins, who passed away earlier this year at 97, were part of Waters' band as well as Legendary Blues Band. They teamed up for the Telarc release Joined At The Hip, which won the Grammy for Traditional Blues Album and made Perkins the oldest Grammy winner in history.
I first came to know of Smith through the studio and live albums Waters cut with Johnny Winters for the Blue Sky label, knowing him primarily as a drummer and committing to memory the way he pounded out those rhythms. It wasn't until just a few years ago I found his solo album Way Back and learned about his work as a bandleader, singer, harp player, and songwriter. Smith did it all, did it well, and from the stories I learned from a few folks I know who knew Smith personally, did so with a smile.
It's been a sad year in the blues community as legends like Smith, Perkins, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards have all passed, taking with them precious links to the great blues tradition and leaving behind a legacy of music, family, and friendship. I was fortunate to be present when Pinetop Perkins performed at Nick Moss' All-Star Jam in 2010 and presented for the final time the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Of The Year Award to Eden Brent. I was blessed see Smith perform with Chris James, Patrick Rynn, Bob Corritore, Jimi Bott, and David Maxwell at the Blues Music Awards in May during a tribute to Pinetop. I saw him walking around and smiling at the ceremony but just as with Perkins the year before, I was too shy to approach him. I'll treasure the memory of seeing them both perform.
We send our condolences to the Smith family and his many, many friends worldwide.