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Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith Scores 2006 Blues Music Award

The 2006 Blues Music Awards, formerly the W.C. Handy Awards, were presented in Memphis, Tennessee on May 11. Among the winners, newcomers, veterans, and, as VOA's Doug Levine tells us, those in between.

He may not have name recognition like B.B. King or Buddy Guy, but Blues Music Award winner Willie "Big Eyes" Smith has logged just as many years as a journeyman blues drummer.

Born in Arkansas, Smith was 17 when he moved to Chicago to play the blues. He gained a local following as a harmonica player, before getting a call from the legendary Muddy Waters to fill in as a drummer in his backup band. On a whim, Muddy gave Smith the nickname "Big Eyes" during a concert on the West Coast. Smith admits that working for Muddy in the early 1960s and then again in the '70s was the ultimate break for a struggling blues musician.

"When I started playing, rock and roll was kind of sneaking in under the back door," he said. "Unless you could play like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James or Little Walter, if you couldn't play like them then you didn't have a job. And it's not likely you were going to have one anyway, because as you well know there's a lot of competition around here."

Chicago has been good to Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. When he couldn't get hired as a musician, Smith cooked in restaurants and drove a taxi to make ends meet. But the odd jobs were always short-lived. When the blues rebounded in the 1980s, Smith co-founded the so-called Legendary Blues Band and went on tour with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. He even made cameo appearances in The Last Waltz and The Blues Brothers.

For Smith, who turned 70 years old this year, timing has been everything.

"You've got to be at the right place at the right time, so I guess I was at the right place at the right time," he said. "I'm not Muddy Waters and I'm not Howlin' Wolf but my music means the same as theirs did. I have that same feeling that they had at the time because I know what they were talking about."

A seven-time W.C. Handy Award winner, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith took home the 2006 Blues Music Award for Best Blues Drummer. The award came two days after the release of his new solo album, Way Back, featuring Smith on harmonica, drums and lead vocals.