When Willie "Big Eyes" Smith first took up the drums behind Muddy Waters, he was known only as Willie Smith. That would never do.
"Everybody in the band pretty much had a nickname, and Muddy just looked back, and said, "Well, I got to call you somethin'.' And that's what come out," Smith recalls.
Smith has played on all of Waters' Grammy-winning recordings and has sat in with a laundry list of blues legends. "The only one I'm sorry I never got to sit in and play with was one of my idols, which is Ray Charles," he says.
Smith began as a harmonica player in Chicago in 1954, forming a trio with drummer Clifton James. But by the late '50s, a working musician would go poor solely playing harmonica.
"About the middle part of the '50s, you know, rock & roll was starting to pick up a hold. So, there wasn't much room for harmonicas at that time," he says.
Smith's drum caught the attention of Waters, one of the only true blues musicians weathering the rock & roll storm, and he asked Smith to sit in on a recording session.
"I started recording with Muddy in '58, but I didn't join the band until [the band] said it was '60. But I knew it was '61. It had to be late, late '60."
In the years that have followed, he's toured with everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones, and he didn't go solo until 1995. At 70, he's still truckin': his new full-length, Way Back, will be released in May. On harmonica or drums, solo or backing Buddy Guy or B.B. King, Smith just wants to play.
"I'm happy either way, as long as I'm part of the wheel. That's what matters to me: As long as I'm part of the wheel that's turnin', I'm happy."
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith with the "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin Blues Band
Classics, 5943 Delmonico Drive
Sunday, March 26, 6 p.m.
Tickets: $18, cash only, at the door or at Music Exchange, 305 E. Pikes Peak Ave.; for more, call 578-0883.