Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was born in Helena, Arkansas, in 1936. At age 17, he ventured to Chicago where he heard Muddy Waters for the ﬁrst time—an experience that got him hooked on the blues and persuaded him to stay in Chicago.
In 1954, Smith, playing harmonica, formed a trio with drummer Clifton James, building a following in Chicago and performing gigs around the area for a few years. During this same time, he played harp with several other artists including Bo Diddley, Arthur “Big Boy” Spires, and Johnny Shines. In 1957, Smith joined Little Hudson’s Red Devil Trio and switched to playing drums. After gigs or between sets, he started sitting in on drums with Muddy Waters’ band. Muddy liked what he heard, and invited Smith to play drums on a 1959 recording session. Willie began to ﬁll in for Muddy’s drummer, Francis Clay, and in 1961, replaced Clay in Muddy’s band until 1964. During this period, as he solidiﬁed his Chicago sound, Willie recorded with James Cotton, Jo Jo Williams and Muddy Waters on a tribute to blues vocalist Big Bill Broonzy. With the exception of a brief hiatus from 1964-’68, Willie played in Muddy’s band until 1980, and appears on all of Muddy’s Grammy-winning albums.
After performing with Muddy Waters, Smith established his own niche within the tradition of the Delta Blues Sound by co-founding the Legendary Blues Band with Pinetop Perkins, Louis Myers, Calvin Jones, and Jerry Portnoy. The group was nominated for several Grammy Awards, backed up Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells, and toured with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. They played behind Muddy for the soundtrack of the movie The Last Waltz, and appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers, where they played street musicians backing John Lee Hooker.
Smith’s traditional shufﬂe style has been regarded as the heart and soul of the Chicago blues sound, with Smith laying the beat behind many of the blues classics. But these days, fans are just as likely to ﬁnd him holding on to a harmonica, his ﬁrst instrument, as they are a drumstick. An award-winning blues drummer, he is also an accomplished harmonica master and dynamic vocalist.