Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith is best known for his tenure as drummer with the great Muddy Waters. Later he was the foundation of the Legendary Blues Band, formed by former members of Waters’ Band and in the years since has played on numerous recordings as well as occasionally showcased his harmonica playing, an instrument he actually recorded on prior to joining Muddy.
Bob Corritore has produced a new Hightone release, Way Back, that showcases Smith’s harp as well as his amiable vocals on some choice covers as well as idiomatic originals. His son Kenny Smith handles drums on most tracks here while the band and guests include James Cotton (superb playing on I Don’t Trust You Man and If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving ), Pinetop Perkins, Bob Stroger, Bob Margolin, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones, Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn Little Frank Krakowski and Johnny Rapp.
Smith sings in a very natural, likable manner and delivers the opening Don’t Say That No More, in a very ingratiating fashion while tossing in harp In a Little Walter manner on Read Way Back and Walter’s Tell Me Mama (actually a Washboard’s Sam number, Back Door). He lacks Walter’s tone, but his driving harp playing has its own attraction. Guitarists Rapp and Krakowski generally stay in the background here, helping push the groove along, although there is some fine playing on Woman’s World. Pinetop Perkins is expectedly splendid throughout. Producer Corritore’s harp and Billy Flynn’ guitar is featured on Lowdown Blues and I Want You to Love Me, two tracks where Big Eyes takes the drum chair. Blues and Trouble is a terrific duet with Margolin who adds some great slide guitar.
Throughout this album, the backing band is wonderful whether taking the tempo down or rocking a shuffle. There are no frenzied hyped-up grooves here, just some first class old school blues playing, and some strong versions of classics as well as some choice originals by Smith results in a fine album that will appeal to lovers of the Chicago blues.
Received review copy from either the record label or a publicist for the label. This review was originally written for the DC Blues Calendar, newsletter of the DC Blues Society in 2006, but am not sure if it was published.