Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, who gained fame for his shuffle beat that became synonymous with Chicago Blues and longtime sticksman for Muddy Waters, passed away on Friday morning in Chicago from a stroke. He was 75 years old.
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Willie Smith was born in Arkansas and moved to Chicago when he was 17, becoming enamored with the local blues music. He formed a trio in 1954 to play in local clubs and eventually started playing harp with such artists as Bo Diddley and Johnny Shines.
In 1957, Willie Smith switched to the drums to play with Little Hudson's Red Devil Trio and occasionally sat in with Muddy Waters' band. Waters brought Smith on for recording sessions and as a fill-in drummer until, two years later, he permanently replaced band drummer Francis Clay. Except for a period in the mid-60's when he dropped out of music, Smith was Waters' drummer until 1980.
Post-Waters, Willie Smith formed the Legendary Blues Band with Pinetop Perkins, Louis Meyer, Calvin Jones and Jerry Portnoy. The group recorded four albums, were nominated for a number of Grammys and even played John Lee Hooker's backing band in the movie The Blues Brothers.
Starting in 1995, Willie Smith began recording a series of solo albums including Bag Full of Blues (1995) and Blues From the Heart (2000). In 2010, he and Pinetop Perkins won a Grammy for their album Joined at the Hip. Perkins passed away back on March 21 at the age of 97.
A celebration of the life and music of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith will be held at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago Thursday, Sept. 22. Funeral services take place Sunday, Sept. 25 and Monday Sept. 26.