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.
When I mentioned that I thought Willie and I could play together as a duo, she liked the idea. While he and I were on tour separately in Florida, Willie and I then got together in Tallahassee. We jammed briefly to see where it would lead. It felt good! I then booked a tour in February of 2009, which took us to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. Willie and I had a ball gigging, hanging out, and talking, and he especially liked having breakfast at Cracker Barrel. He told me wonderful stories of his years with Muddy, and we just had a great time. We became close friends. He had a lot of energy for a man in his early 70’s, but he was a kid at heart, full of fun. I think sometimes I had a hard time keeping up with him, even being 18 years his junior. We hung out together in Memphis during the Blues Awards in 2009 where Willie picked up his 13th BMA, but he also talked there about looking forward to our next tour. That next excursion would come in December of 2009 which included stops in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio. We also made a stop to the Sirius XM Radio studios in Washington, DC, where we were invited by Bill Wax to record some custom tracks for exclusive airplay on B.B. King’s Bluesville. During this time, I was recording the live shows, trying to capture the magic we were experiencing as a duo. That magic happened on December 11, 2009 at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, PA., which is the night the CD, LIVE BLUES PROTECTED BY SMITH & WILSON, was recorded. It was a sold out show, and the crowd was there for the Blues. They hung on every note, and like myself, they just loved listening to Willie sing and play the harp. It was extra special for me, since I was there onstage singing and playing guitar with him. When I listened back to the tracks from that night, I finally felt like they had the energy and the result I was looking for. I made a copy for Willie, and he loved it. We were both happy with what we heard, and he, too, wanted to see a CD evolve from it. I just wish he could be here to see it become a reality. Thanks to his family, it was released in 2012.
In early January of 2010, Willie and his band were heading south for a tour. They drove overnight from Chicago in a blizzard that was hitting the Southeast. When I called Willie to check on them, they were fine, but the engine light in his van had come on. I gave him directions to my mechanic’s garage and set up an immediate appointment for him. They met me at the garage, dropped the van, and rode home with me. At the same time, my wife, Jolie, was at home fixing breakfast for the band. Atlanta’s roads were either snowed in or iced over, so it wasn’t an easy travel day for anyone. When we got to my house, my Tahoe wouldn’t make it up the hill on the ice. Now here I was with Willie and the band pushing my car up the incline so we could roll it down my driveway and get in out of the cold. Once everyone got in by the fire, it was all good. The guys were tired, but they first had a good breakfast and watched some TV. Coincidentally, the movie Cadillac Records, the story of Muddy Waters and Chess Records, just happened to show up on TV. To have some of the guys that had worked with Muddy over the years sitting in my living room watching this movie was just on the edge of surreal. They would throw in little comments about the validity of the production, but overall, their reviews were favorable. Later that afternoon, in front of a warm fire in the wood stove, and while they were all comfortable on the couch and easy chairs, a pleasant afternoon fatigue set in. It was then they were able to get a brief nap. While they were asleep, I couldn’t resist snapping a couple of photos. I was just glad they could get fed, get a little rest, and get the vehicle repaired before heading out to a gig that night in Atlanta, and then on to Florida and Texas. They made it to their gig in town that night OK, despite the bad roads. I was having trouble just getting around my neighborhood, so I didn’t venture out to jam with the band. That is a decision I regret to this day, but the whole city of Atlanta was a demolition derby due to the icy roads. I was really concerned about these guys getting to the gig and out of town safely, but they had just driven over the mountain between Nashville and Chattanooga at night in a blizzard! Who was I to doubt them?
Willie and I once again kept in touch through the year until we toured again in December of 2010. He and I met in Illinois for a gig there, then on to OH, PA, and NJ. From there, Willie had to drive back to Chicago to catch a flight to the West Coast for a gig with Pinetop Perkins. When he left, he was complaining about a slight pain in his leg. When I asked how bad the pain was, he just blew it off like it was temporary. For some reason, I think it bothered him more than he let on. Heading home myself, I had a couple of gigs in NC just before Christmas, and then another year would come to a close. During this year, the CD, Pinetop’s & Willie’s CD, Joined at The Hip, was to be nominated for a Grammy. Our live CD, this one, was in the can waiting, pending the outcome of the 2011 Grammys.
In February of 2011, I was in my home office watching the afternoon internet feed of the Grammys. It is amazing how much great music is nominated and awarded in the afternoon that the public doesn’t see on TV. That’s another story for another day. Don’t get me started! When Joined at The Hip was announced as the winning Traditional Blues CD, I was overcome with emotion to see Willie, 97 year old Pinetop in his wheelchair, and Pat Morgan doing the Happy Dance while heading down the aisle to accept the award. What a great life achievement this was for both Pinetop & Willie. It was good to know that Willie would not just go down in history as a sideman for Muddy Waters, but he would leave this world as an accomplished musician in his own right. I loved that!A week or so after the Grammys, I talked to Willie at home. I mentioned to him (kidding), that with 14 BMA’s and now a Grammy, that he would be too big now to go out on tour with me. He chuckled, “That’ll just make it better!”, and he said he was ready to go on the road at the first opportunity.
That chance was to come at the end of June, 2011. Willie had a short window between tours, so we had about 5 dates booked. About a week out, Willie said he was in great pain and had to go to the clinic for treatment right when our tour started. This worried me greatly, since it seemed that this was probably the same pain he experienced back in December. But now it was worse. I had to change gears and carry my own band out on that tour, but I was still worried about Willie. When I found out he was not touring in late summer and fall, I had a bad feeling. Willie and I were also booked on the same bill, but separately on the Amelia Island Blues Festival in Florida in September. While heading to that festival, I was planning to get a card to send to him, letting him know that I was hoping for him to get well. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I received the news that next morning, on the day Willie and I were to play the festival, that he had passed away in the early morning hours. I was heartbroken, but I had already braced myself to accept the fact that I might be hearing this news soon.
Willie and I knew months before, that we would be on the Amelia Island Festival together. He was looking forward to us getting together there. Because of his illness and staying behind, his band went on the road with Eddie Taylor, Jr., so they didn’t hear the sad news until just before arriving at the festival. It was a sad time, but everybody realized we had to celebrate Willie’s life, and to carry on as he would want us to. There was a stool on the stage with harps and a mike in memory of Willie during the whole festival. Willie’s band did a great set, and bassist Bob Stroger invited me up to play with them in memory of Willie. There is healing power in music, and the healing had to begin somewhere. It couldn’t have been a more perfect time for this to happen. The only thing missing was Willie.
A week or so later, I made the 12 hour drive to Chicago for Willie’s visitation and funeral. He and I had driven quite a few miles together, so I knew I had to make this trip. It was a very moving and emotional service, and a wonderful tribute to Willie. When they lowered Willie’s casket into the grave, I tossed in one of my “Hurricane” Wilson guitar picks with him. I was fortunate to know and play with Willie, and to be his friend. As I actually said on stage during the recording of this CD, “You can’t make this stuff up”. Of course, he took much more of me with him that day than just that guitar pick. I will always miss my friend, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.