Remembering Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on His Birthday
January 19, 2017 would have been Willie’s 81st birthday. I’m so glad I had the privilege of knowing and touring with him. Here is part of the story from Chapter 32 in my book, HURRICANE, released in early 2016.
I first met Willie “Big Eyes” Smith at the Hot Licks Blues Festival in Granville, OH in 2007. He was performing the duty of bandleader for longtime Howlin’ Wolf band member and legendary Blues guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. Hubert and I had known each other through mutual friends, so he invited me onstage to sit in with him during his set. It was a real treat to be onstage with both Hubert and Willie. Later that night, my band and I were playing for the after-festival party, and Willie was hanging out listening. During my usual wireless walk into the crowd, I told Willie he was welcome to jam with us if he felt so inclined. Since he had been working hard earlier in the day, I thought he may just want to sit back with a drink and relax. He did that for a little while, but that relaxation period was short-lived. Not too much later, Willie approached the side of the stage with that “I want to play now,” look in his eye. Clutching his harmonica, he jumped right in like we had known each other for years and started playing the Blues. Then he would get back on the drums for a while, and we would experience that wonderful “Willie Shuffle” he had pioneered for many years with Muddy. We jammed together for about 2 hours. Willie and I exchanged cards, and I told him I’d love to jam with him again sometime. He said, “We’ll talk again, I got you in my back pocket”.
Willie and I would see each other on subsequent visits to Memphis for the Blues Awards, and the International Blues Competition. While having breakfast with the late Pinetop Perkins in Clarksdale, MS. during the 2008 Blues Awards, I met his manager, Patricia Morgan, who was also Willie’s manager. We talked briefly, but it wasn’t until I was on a tour in New York that she invited me to participate in the annual Pinetop Perkins Homecoming at Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale. That would work since I would also be performing nearby at the Handy Festival in Helena, AR. While we were talking, I mentioned to her that Willie and I had played together, and that I was interested in jamming with Willie again…. (cont’d in the book HURRICANE)