Editor’s note: On the heels of Becky’s heroic assault on an unsuspecting Pinetop Perkins and subsequent run-in with his handler at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark., we traveled across the river to Clarksdale, Miss., on Sunday for the annual bash for Pinetop at Hopson Plantation. During the course of the day, I had the chance to talk to several people, including Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, a veteran harmonica player and drummer who, like Perkins, had done a long stint in Muddy Waters’ band.
Much like the Pinetop Perkins interview, I inexplicably let this one collect dust in a cardboard box while the years fell away. On listening to it again, I was delighted anew by Willie Smith’s generosity of spirit and infectious laughter. Last February, Smith and Perkins won a Grammy for their collaboration, “Joined at the Hip.” On Sept. 16, 2011, Smith suffered a stroke and died. He was 75.
Not to be didactic, but a word or two on his background:
Willie Smith was born Jan. 19, 1936, in Helena, Ark., on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Though a generation younger than Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins and most of the musicians who figured prominently in the birth of modern blues, he faced the same oppressive social circumstances.
Jim Crow was alive and well down South.
The year before Smith was born, a Florida mob lynched a homeless black man in Dade County for the offense of knocking on doors in search of food. No one was charged with a crime. In 1937, Arthur W. Mitchell, a black member of the House of Representatives from Illinois traveling from Chicago to Hot Springs, was ordered to leave his seat in the “white” section when the train crossed the river into Arkansas. When he argued with the conductor, he was told: “It don’t make a damn bit of difference who you are. As long as you a nigger, you can’t ride in this car.”
Mitchell eventually took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won a judgment.
Willie Smith and I talked outside an old sharecropper’s cabin on Hopson Plantation, where a series of shotgun shacks have been converted into homespun lodging called the Shack Up Inn. During a rambling conversation, I asked Willie Smith about growing up on a tenant farm in the Jim Crow south in addition to his evolution into a universally respected blues musician. I’ll just present the results in Q & A form, more or less the way it happened, occasionally editing my ham-handed questions to make me look not quite as stupid as I sound on tape. For his part, Willie Smith was generous and engaging and funny throughout and did not require much editing.
SO Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, does it come as any surprise to find yourself standing on the porch of Pinetop’s cabin, on what used to be a plantation in Mississippi, with people who want to take your photograph and talk to you and ask you about your life?
It’s a piece of history. It’s not surprising, I was practically born and raised in one of those shacks like that. What really surprises me is they were able to keep up this long and make a hotel out of it now. Because like the shack that I was born and raised in is all gone. Which is on the other side of the river. There’s nothing there anymore.
Your folks were sharecroppers. What are your memories of growing up?
As far as I can remember, it was hard work. I remember they called a certain part of the land that they was planting up, they used to call it “new ground.” They were clearing up trees by the roots, making room to grow some cotton. It was hard work. … By the time I was 10 years old, I was kinda riding my way out. I did the mule. I plowed the mule. By the time I was 10, I was driving. I was driving tractors and working in the hay field, cornfield. It was a hell of an experience.
How did you graduate to being a tractor driver at age 10?
I was a country boy, so you grow with this. My uncle was a tractor driver. When I’d go to school, I’d get out of school, I would go out into the field where they was, and they would turn me loose with the tractor. … You know, it’s something that you wanted to do at the time. That’s why I learned so fast, because I was growing up doing it. It was a hell of an experience. I enjoyed it. You know all kids want to drive something.
So that’s a big graduation, from a pair of mules to a tractor. (He laughs ebulliently.) You done graduated now. Then I went from there to the trucks. By the time I was 14 years old, anything anybody could do on the place as far as driving whatever machinery, I could do it.
Who owned the plantation?
The plantation I grew up on was called Wooten and Epp’s,
You ever meet those people?
Did I ever meet them? I seen ’em every day. The guy that owned the farm, him and his wife, they’d ride around the plantation. A lot of the time they’d come to somebody’s house. They’d stop in the field and talk to you. He was getting old, his daughter got married, and (then his son-in-law took over) … He’d come by and talk to you. You still wasn’t making no money, but he’d come by and talk to you. It wasn’t one of those hostile things.
Because the people who worked the farm were supposed to know their place?
If you were black, you knowed your place if you didn’t want to get in trouble. Being youngsters as we were, we wasn’t prepared to take the same things like our parents were. You don’t understand why it is and you’re going to change it. A lot of that was coming up then, that you just wasn’t going to do it.
I remember my grand mama used to tell me, she used to talk about how the white man or whatever used to whoop people and all that shit. Uh-uh, that would never happen me. I said, “if the man ever hit me, I’m going to hit him back”. First thing they say, “you gonna be dead.” I said, “well I’m gonna be dead then.”
Well, if I had interviewed you in 1950, I could’ve gotten in trouble. Especially if I addressed you as “Mr. Smith.” What do you make of the way things have changed?
It’s a different world, the way it shoulda been all the time. It’s like they say, you had a few rotten apples in the barrel and they terrorized everybody else. … I do believe in good and evil and I believe in Satan and the devil. he just had his way of working things like they was. But you knew it wasn’t going to last. That couldn’t last. There’s too many good people.
What age did you decide you wanted to play music?
From the time that I can remember. When I could set on my uncle’s knee and we had a little-bitty ol’ RCA Victor, we called ’em “graphnophones.” I’d wind it up and listen to all those records. You name it, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Bessie Smith. My uncle, he was crazy about people like Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, all of those people. I used to sit down and I’d listen.
But when I’d hear it, I always knew I wanted to play. It was something different and it sounded so good to me. It’s a spiritual thing with me. That’s what the blues is all about. I guess I recognized it from a young age. But I never had the dream that I would be playing (for good money in front of large audiences). It made no difference if I was playing for people or not, I just wanted to play. I played to satisfy me. It’s just the way I felt about it. Even today I don’t really get into all that stuff, because you can’t please everybody. But I do the best I can, I don’t care where I’m at. I’m just fortunate enough, thank God, people like it. So here I am.
Fame and fortune, that never entered the equation?
Fame and glory, that never crossed your mind. Even Muddy Waters at that time, he didn’t think about that himself. He was doing the same thing that everybody was; He was making a little money – he wasn’t making no money, but he was doing a little better, he was surviving, He was just happy to play, just to survive. Just play his music, that was the key. That’s the key with me, to play my music. …
If I had all that, what the hell would I do with it? I just want to be, I guess I’d really like to get comfortable. Hey, I’m happy. I’ve been able to feed the kids, keep a roof over their heads, kept their stomachs full, put em all through school. Hey I was blessed.
Where do you live?
Chicago. Same place I lived for 50 years. From the time I fiirst come to Chicago to where I’m living at now, there’s only about 10 blocks. I actually remember the number where I was living the first day I came back in ’53. I was living on State Street, 4345 S. State St. Now I’m living at 4345 S. Lake Park. Muddy lived at 4339 Lake Park. So when Muddy moved in ’73, my wife and I and the kids moved into the building. He went to the suburbs, and I moved into his building. I stayed from ’73 till I got the building pretty much next to his in ’80.
What was the first instrument you took up?
You play a little guitar, too?
Naw. No, no, no, no. Me and guitar, nah. I wanted to play it. I can’t do nothing with it. I got two or three guitars, ;but I can’t do nothing. Basses, too.
When did you start playing the drums?
I took to the drums in about ’50. When I really started to play drums I guess was about ’57. The only reason I started playing drums, even though I like them, was because the blues was kind of moving to take the back seat. Especially in this country, it was kinda moving to taking the back seat to the next generation of the blues, which was rock and roll. See they took the blues that the older guys had did and speeded it up and they called it rock and roll. That’s why Muddy made a record, “The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll.”
Rock and roll ain’t nothing but the blues. You speed it up, and you got rock and roll.
Growing up on the other side of the river, did you get turned on to the harp because you listened to the King Biscuit blues hour and Sonny Boy Williamson?
To tell you the truth, I was just like all of the young harmonica players that you hear today, because (Little) Walter influenced me, really. Well, Sonny Boy he had influenced me, but he didn’t influence me like Walter did. He really influenced me.
Did you ever see any of these guys come through?
Walter, yeah. I seen him come through. Because you know, Luther Tucker, he played guitar with Walter. We’re only like a day apart our age. He was born on the 20th, I was born on the 19th of January. Him and Robert Jr. (Lockwood), (Fred) Below and Walter kind of taught me tricks, even though I wasn’t playing with them. I was blowing harp. I used to go down and Walter and all them, they kind of liked to guide me. Being young you got a lot of stupid ideas. They just kept us on the right track.
I used to see Robert Jr. on the King Biscuit hour. You see Robert Jr., Pinetop, Sonny Boy, Joe Willie Wilkins. Oh shit, I used to see em all.
Who was your favorite?
It wasn’t like it is now. Really, the media now tells you who your favorite is. That’s where you get your favorite now, from the media. But to me, anybody that sounded good at the time was my favorite. But now at that time, really, Big Maceo and Tampa Red was really my favorites. And I liked Robert Johnson, too. But he was just playing the guitar. And what’s the piano player’s name, what the hell is his name? He kind of changed things around on the piano … Leroy Carr.
How big of a deal was it for you to get a job playing with Muddy Waters?
At that time, everybody wanted to play with somebody that was famous. At that time it wasn’t so much of the deal. You had to be good enough to get on the stage. It wasn’t like now, you can walk in and say ‘I play guitar’ and ‘I do this’ and get on somebody’s bandstand. They had to know you was able to carry that weight when you got on the bandstand. I didn’t have no problem with that. Muddy used to give a matinee every Sunday, so everybody and his brother or sister would be there.
(He’d do shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, then a Sunday matinee jam session, then a regular Sunday night show.)
You’d start the matinee at 1 or 2 o’clock. It would be over at 9, then the real band would start about 9:30 without everybody jamming. At the time when I started going to the matinees, well really, the only reason I went to the matinees the first time was because the boy that told me about it he was Muddy’s chauffeur. He was the same one who used to kind of babysit me when I was small. … Anybody who wanted to play could play.
“I went down there to play, he liked it, and the rest I guess is history. Right after then, oh shit, I was at work one day he came by the house to tell me mother to tell me to call him. I called him when I come home, and he wanted me to play with him over in Gary (Ind.) that night. Because his drummer at that time, I think his sister passed and he was taking a few days off. So he came and got me. I think it was me, Robert Jr., and Pat Hare. We went and did the gig. And about another week after that, they called me to do a recording. The rest is history.
(Speaking of Pat Hare, who lost his job in Muddy’s band when he was sent up for murdering his girlfriend and a cop, here’s a taste of his nasty work with James Cotton on 1954’s “Cotton Crop Blues,” an effort in which some musicologists detect the embryonic elements of heavy metal guitar):
Did you like working with Muddy?
I was there like 18 years. It wasn’t 18 years of torture, you know. (Laughter). We had a lot of fun together.
How would you describe Muddy Waters?
I would describe him the same way I would describe my daddy. My real daddy was named McKinley, too (Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield). Because when I started I was real young, too. So he kind of like told me the right shit to do. You can always have that extra little wisdom. He kept me out of a lot of shit that I woulda been in.
Why did you go to Chicago?
I went to Chicago to visit; to visit my mother. She left like in 1944 and went to Chicago. My grandmother practically raised me. She was working for the railroads when I was going to school, all through high school. I didn’t have to worry about my supplies or nothing. It was always there, really. Whatever I wanted, I got it. I might not have got it the day I say I wanted it, but I knew I was gonna get it.
Did you mother and father split?
Yeah. My mother (Lizzie) and father broke up when I was pretty small. But I always knew who they was. Wasn’t no friction. My grandmother (on my mother’s side) her name was Janie Wilson. … (My grandmother) on my daddy’s side she passed away when I was 6 years old. I can remember all the things she told me when I was 3-4 years old. It burned in.
What was one thing she told you?
No. 1 was treat other people like you wanted to be treated. And she proved one thing to me before I was, I couldn’t have been no more than 4 years old. They bought me a tricycle, right? And I brought it home and I rode it on Saturday night. We’re going to church in the morning. I’m going to ride to church in the morning. She takes my bike and hides it.
And when I get up in the morning, she tells me somebody done stole it. And I’m crying. I’m really crying. She watching me, and the first thing came out of my mouth was “I’m gonna kill ’em!” I guess that’s what she’s waiting on me to say. “I’m gonna kill ’em!”
Got me right there and then. Then she said, “You see how you feel? That somebody stole your bike?” I’m puffin’ and cryin’, “I’m gonna kill ’em!” She says, “Uh-uh. Let me tell you something. Just the way you feel now, remember, if you’d ever steal something from somebody, that’s just the way they’d feel.” And that stuck with me from that point until now. And then she went and got my bike.
What was her name?
Lela Smith. That was a hell of a lesson. You know kids. That’s the first thing that came out. “I’m gonna kill ’em.” I ain’t knee high to a duck, but I’m going to kill somebody. She stopped me right then and there.
How did you get the nickname ‘Big Eyes.’ Your eyes aren’t that big. I mean, you got nice eyes, but …
This came about one night we was on the bandstand, and everybody had a nickname. You knew, we had (guitarist) Sammy Lawhorn, we used to call him “Lowhorn,” “‘Lewhorn” everything. And we had Pee Wee Madison, he was the guitar player, His name was James Madison, but we always called him Pee Wee. We had (harmonica player) George “Mojo” Buford. I’m just plain old me, just Willie Smith. We was just having fun up there on the bandstand. See like (bass player) Calvin, they called him “Fuzz” Jones.
So Muddy look back at me and he says, “Motherfucker, I gotta call you something. Look at this big-eyed motherfucker. Willie “Big-Eyes” Smith.” (Lots of laughter all around.)
So that was my nickname. I couldn’t outrun it.
Here’s Muddy Waters’ band circa 1963, with a young Willie Smith on drums:
What do you do now? How busy are you?
I play everywhere. Busy as a cat trying to cover up shit on a tin roof.