The blues-drumming world lost an elder statesman yesterday when Grammy winner Willie “Big Eyes” Smith died of a stroke in Chicago. He was 75. Born and raised in Helena, Arkansas, Smith got his start as a professional musician when he moved to Chicago at the age of 17, where he taught himself drums and harmonica and began playing with such blues artists as Clifton James, Bobby Lee Burns, Arthur “Big Boy” Spires, and Hudson Shower’s Red Devil Trio. His career took an upswing when he played drums on Muddy Waters’ 1960 release Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy. He replaced drummer Francis Clay in Waters’ band the following year, touring and recording with the legendary singer until 1964, when he left the music business and supported himself by driving a taxi, working in a restaurant, and other jobs in Chicago.
Smith rejoined Waters in ’68 and continued through 1980, when he helped form the Legendary Blues Band with pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, an old friend and neighbor from Helena. The Legendary Blues Band backed up Waters in The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz, and John Lee Hooker in The Blues Brothers movie, and opened for Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. In 1995, Smith released his first solo album, Bag Full Of Blues, and continued his solo recording career through the 2000s, culminating in his Grammy and Blues Music Award win in 2010 for the album Joined At the Hip, a collaboration with his old friend Perkins (who also passed away earlier this year at the age of 97). Smith was named Drummer Of The Year by the Blues Music Awards 12 times between 1996—2010.