Willie Smith was born in Helena in Jan. 19, 1936. Raised by his grandparents, he learned harmonica in part by playing along with records. As a teen-ager, Smith saw a Muddy Waters performance in Chicago, and inspired by Muddy Waters’ jazzy drummer, Fred Below, Smith worked on his drumming skills. Coincidentally, Smith would later gain his greatest fame as a drummer in the Muddy Waters band.
Not yet 20, Smith formed a trio and began playing around Chicago in 1954. The following year, he performed on Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” and was asked to join Diddley’s band. Smith briefly formed his own band again and played harmonica for Arthur “Big Boy” Spires through the mid-1950s. Somewhere along the line, Smith himself picked up an even more colorful nickname — “Big Eyes.”
In 1957, Smith returned to drumming for Little Hudson’s Red Devil Trio. Soon, the Phillips County native was offered a big promotion — to join the Muddy Waters band as understudy to “Mojo” Buford. During this time, Muddy Waters was riding high, rivaled in the blues world only by Arkansan Howlin’ Wolf.
Smith replaced Buford in the studio and, in his initial turn, drummed with Waters’ band until the end of the 1950s, including on Waters’ tribute to Arkansas-raised blues vocalist Big Bill Broonzy.
Smith later recorded with Jo Jo Williams and Tunica-born, Helena-raised James Cotton, before retiring temporarily from music, working in a restaurant and drawing welfare. But he returned to his drummer’s stool in the band of Muddy Waters in the ’60s and ’70s.
Smith can be seen in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers” as one of the street musicians backing John Lee Hooker, with extended footage added in the DVD release. A similar scene where a musician leaves his restaurant gig to rejoin his old band also plays out in the movie.
Smith co-founded the Grammy-winning Legendary Blues Band with Pinetop Perkins, Louis Meyers, Calvin Jones and Jerry Portnoy. The group performed with Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy and toured with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and others. They also played behind Muddy for the soundtrack of the movie “The Last Waltz,” where Smith co-drummed with fellow Phillips County native Levon Helm of the Band.
Smith’s 1995 recording, “Bag Full of Blues,” marked the multiple Handy award-winner’s solo debut and featured former Fabulous Thunderbirds vocalist Kim Wilson and Smith’s old bandmate, Pinetop Perkins, on piano. Smith also wrote and sang. A 1999 CD, “Nothing But the Blues Ya’ll,” followed, as did Smith’s “Blues From the Heart” disc in 2000 and 2004’s “Bluesin’ It.”
Although a leader of his own band and a blues harmonica player, Smith kept the pulse of many blues classics, especially those by Muddy Waters, and this is where Smith claimed his greatest fame.
Smith is scheduled to perform in Memphis at the Beale Street Music Festival April 30 and at the Hot Springs Blues Festival Sept. 3.
• “Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy,” 1960
• Muddy Waters, “Twenty-Four Hours,” 1963
• “Muddy Waters Live at Mr. Kelly’s,” 1971
• Muddy Waters, “Hard Again,” 1977
• Willie Smith, “Bag Full of Blues,” 1995