At 75 years of age, it's hard to imagine Willie "Big Eyes" Smith being the "baby" of any group. Still, that's how he describes himself when he talks about hanging around with elder bluesmen like Hubert Sumlin, who turns 80 in November, or Pinetop Perkins, who was 97 when he and Smith picked up Grammy Awards in February for their Joined at the Hip album.
"We could talk, but when they went back further than me, then I had to listen," says Smith, who was all of 17 when his mother first took him to hear Muddy Waters, the blues legend he'd go on to play with for 15 years. It was Waters who gave Smith his nickname, for reasons that are fairly obvious.
Although Smith had already made a name for himself playing harmonica on Bo Diddley's 1956 single, "Diddy Wah Diddy," he spent his years with Waters mostly behind the drum kit. In 1980, he and other members of the band struck out on their own as the Legendary Blues Band. (That's them backing up John Lee Hooker in the Blues Brothers film.)
When that band broke up, Smith and Perkins, who'd been Muddy's longtime pianist, continued to tour together and appear on each other's records, with Smith returning to his original harmonica and vocals. As it turned out, Joined at the Hip would be the duo's final collaboration; Smith saw his friend buried earlier this month.
In the following interview, Smith talks about the road that got him here, and some of the things he's learned along the way.
Indy: I know you were on a half-dozen or so Grammy-winning albums with Muddy Waters, but was this year the first time you got to attend the ceremony in person?
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith: Well, this is the first time I got my own. [Laughs.] Back when Muddy was getting them, it wasn't no big deal to me. I mean, it was a big deal that he got it, but for us, we were just sidemen. It wasn't like it is nowadays, where sidemen get recognized.
Indy: Did your name even show up on those old records?
WS: Well, at one point they used to did not. Even when the big LPs first started coming out, there wasn't no recognition on there, you know? But in the later years, everybody that has something to do with it, their name shows up on the LP.
Indy: I know you'd already recorded with folks like Bo Diddley when you hooked up with Muddy Waters, but I'm wondering: What are some of the things you learned from him?
WS: Well, musically, by the time I got to Muddy Waters, I knew how it was supposed to go, 'cos I guess it was just something that's built in, looking back on it now. Then I listened to Muddy Waters, and that was just a soul-sent music. Not only Muddy Waters, but people that go all the way back to Roosevelt Sykes and to Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, back to Robert Johnson. So as far as I was concerned, that was the kind of music that I wanted to play.
Indy: Since Muddy was a couple decades older than you, I'm wondering if you learned anything from him about life in general.
WS: Oh, well I learned a lot from Muddy. You know, he was kinda like my second dad. He explained to me a lot of things. And a lot of things I was seeing for myself, even before I started playing music. You know, a lot of bad things go down.
Indy: Like what?
WS: Well, you know, there's always the drugs around. And as a youngster, you try it. But I didn't never have a chance to get into it really, before I was taught the lesson that once you get in, you can't get out.
Indy: What have you learned since that time that you'd wished you'd known back then?
WS: Since that time? [Laughs.] The only thing I learned since that time is that I wouldn't have spent as much money as I'd spent! But you know, money is no big thing, it don't mean nothin', you know? It's nice to get what you can get with it, like being able to keep traveling. I guess that's why I ain't got none, because as soon as I get it, I just start traveling. I don't think about the rainy days, you know? Might not never rain.
Indy: I understand back in the mid-'60s, you took a few years off from Muddy's band to drive a taxi.
WS: Yeah, from '64 to '68, I was off. Because at that time, as you well might know, there wasn't too much money to be made, especially for the black people, unless you was a superstar like Nat King Cole. And I was raising a family at that time, so I had to take off and try to take care of the family.
Indy: But looking back on that now, it's amazing to think that, here you were in this band with Muddy Waters, and driving a cab was actually more profitable.
WS: Yeah, well it was! In a day's time, I was making three times the money that I was making with Muddy. So, you know, I learned that pretty quick. I was working long hours, but I still was doing what I like to do, 'cos I like to drive and I like to meet people.
Indy: So by the time you got back and things started rolling again, a lot of the British artists were starting to pay attention to you guys?
WS: Yeah, right, exactly. Around the end of '68, Muddy and me had a talk and he told me how much better things was. And at that time, my wife and I was kind of making a switch, so it was a good thing for me, and I took him up on it. And the rest of that is history.
Indy: Now, when you say making a switch, do you mean getting divorced?
WS: Yes, mm-hmm.
Indy: Well, there's no better time to go out on the road than that.
WS: [Cackles.] Yeah, I know! You right about that!
Indy: You also went on to tour with Dylan, Clapton and the Stones. Were you surprised how, coming from such different backgrounds, you ended up having so much in common?
WS: No, not really. Come to think of it, if it hadn't been for the English people, we wouldn't have been who we are. They knew as much about the music as we did, and we was playin' it, you know? They knew all the way back to people like Big Bill Broonzy, who was around when I was a little bitty boy. The older guys had been going overseas for years, and they would talk about how good it was, you know, how the people understood the music.
Indy: This has been some year for you so far: You celebrated your 75th birthday in January. You and Pinetop Perkins picked up Grammy Awards in February. And then you find yourself going to his funeral earlier this month. Is there ever a point where you get used to the range of highs and lows that life can hand you?
WS: Well, that's life. You know, it's good when it's good and it's bad when it's bad, just like B.B. said. You know this, so you is prepared. And one thing's for sure: After a certain point in life, you understand that you're not gonna be around forever more, you know?
Indy: So you're in a new position now, in that you have to follow up on a Grammy-winning album. How you gonna do that?
WS: Do the same thing that I been doin' all the time. Do my best. And it will be the blues. I'm not the one to judge how good it will be, but I'll know that I did my best.