Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is best known as the drummer whose smoothly propulsive shuffles and rugged stop-time lopes drove Muddy Waters’s bands for 18 years. But Smith’s roots go back much farther than that: although he’d played drums since childhood he began his professional career as a harp player, working in the 50s with such Chicago stalwarts as drummer Clifton James and guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Spires. In 1958 Smith turned to the drums, playing with Muddy Waters’s understudy Mojo Buford, and within a year Muddy himself had recruited Smith to record. By late 1960 Smith was Waters’s regular drummer. Smith’s playing style–energetic but subtle, solidly in the pocket of the traditional Chicago shuffle and with an uncanny feel for straight-ahead walking bass patterns–could hardly have been more appropriate to the classic Muddy Waters sound. These days Smith has begun showcasing his voice–a delightfully raw and melodic instrument that’s the perfect complement to the forward-charging impetus of his percussion work. Tonight, Rosa’s, 3420 W. Armitage; 342-0452.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.