|Willie "Big Eyes" Smith – Born In Arkansas
East Side Slim
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith - Born In Arkansas
Big Eye Records, Inc., 2008
Willie Smith is perhaps best known for his long tenure in the drum chair for Muddy Waters' bands of the 1960s and 1970s; Smith joined Waters in 1961 and stayed with Muddy until 1980. From there, Smith went on to help co-found the Legendary Blues Band with other members of Muddy's band, including Calvin Jones, Pinetop Perkins and Jerry Portnoy. Willie has been fronting his own band since the mid-1990s, focusing primarily on singing and playing harmonica (his first instrument) over the course of half a dozen CD releases.
Willie's newest CD, Born in Arkansas, utilizes some of the best old-school blues players out there, including bassman Bob Stroger, pianist extraordinaire Barrelhouse Chuck, in-demand-by-everyone guitarist Billy Flynn, under-the-radar guitarist Little Frank Krakowski (who has worked with Willie for years) and top-notch drummer (as well as being Willie's son) Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith. The songs on this CD are very much in the styles of blues that Willie grew up and cut his teeth on, styles made famous by artists such as Muddy Waters (of course), Jimmy Reed, Big Boy Crudup, Rice Miller, Howlin' Wolf and the like. This album is full of mid-tempo and slow blues, all performed very much in the wonderful ensemble fashion that helped to make '50s-era electric Chicago blues so popular and long lasting.
1. When I Left -- This cut is a mid-tempo loping track ala Jimmy Reed. Thankfully, Willie doesn't play harp in the Jimmy Reed style here, as I've never been a big fan of single notes on the high end; that typically sounds screechy to me, unless the player is VERY good. I'd much rather hear someone playing big chords, bending and chugging rhythms on the fat end (low end) of the harp.
2. Rub My Back -- (this is not the Slim Harpo tune)
--We have a slow blues here, with the emphasis on the instrumental work rather than on the lyrics. The liner notes don't tell you which guitar player is responsible for what on which tracks, but the guitar work on this song is as deep as Lake Michigan.
3. Money Talks -- I like this tune. It's set to a familiar mid-tempo blues riff, but Willie has fun with the lyrics. It brings to my mind the music Snooky Pryor, which is a good thing. I know Snooky is no longer with us, but he was such an under-recognized cat by many blues fans.
4. Ain't That A Shame -- This one is a primitive sounding slow blues from the Muddy Waters mold. There is some string picking that sounds almost like a mandolin here, or maybe it is just a guitarist playing at the body-end of the fret board. Either way, it, along with the martial drum pattern, reminds me of old Library of Congress blues recordings from the early 1940s.
5. Old Woman Sweetheart -- This track is set to a "Help Me" riff with new words. It is very reminiscent of the 1960s blues, with organ used in place of a piano. Willie is singing about woman troubles here, how his pretty young thing just doesn't know Jack, but his older gal knows how to treat him but doesn't look quite as nice. Guess which one he chooses? That's right - he'd rather be "an old woman's sweetheart than a young woman's fool".
6. Dreamin' -- Willie and the boys are back with a deep, slow instrumental blues, sort of in the style of Muddy's "I'm Gonna Make Love To You." Willie blows some very nice harp here, really going for tone and feel rather than trying to blow the doors off the joint.
7. Sitting Here Drinkin' -- You just know there had to be a tune on this CD set to the Dust My Broom lick and this would be the one. While this certainly won't break any new ground, it is a great example of ensemble electric blues. You hear everyone's separate parts clearly, yet they all merge into a much greater whole that sound so good! I feel that I need to point out Willie's lines about "the woman that I'm lovin', she puts a smile on my face.the girl I'm in love with is always on my mind" sure sounds right. There is little better in this whole wide World than for a man to have just such a woman thinkin' that he's alright.
8. Born In Arkansas -- Musically, this is a mid-tempo down-home tune from the Howlin' Wolf songbook (Down in the Bottom). Once again the mandolin sound is present, which is likely Billy Flynn supplying uncredited electric mandolin. He does play mandolin on his own albums, so why not here, too?
9. World In An Uproar -- We've got another track relying on organ rather than on piano. I know the liner notes mention the piano work of Pinetop Perkins as an influence, as Willie played in the band with Pinetop for years, but Barrelhouse Chuck's keyboard work on this CD, especially the organ, reminds me much more of Sunnyland Slim's playing (Chuck studied under Slim, by the way.)
10. I'm The Creeper -- After so many slow blues tracks on this CD, this cut sounds almost jaunty. It's a bragging tune, with Willie telling everyone who will listen just what a good lover man he is. The organ work here is very cool, and Willie supplies some nice harp lines between verses.
11. Can't Rest For Worry -- This is a slower blues, nothing fancy, but it is a showcase of sorts for the guitars and piano, all of which are given nice, if short, solo space.
12. Believe Me -- This cut takes us back into Jimmy Reed territory; it's almost an up-tempo tune. Listen to the comping of the rhythm guitar on this song, as the entire feel of the tune is built on it. This is a nice track.
13. Overcoat Mama -- This track takes us all the way back, with just Willie (on acoustically played harp and vocals) and Billy (on mandolin? or mandolin-tuned guitar) supplying a little back porch music.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith's Born In Arkansas is a dose of solid, traditional old-school electric Chicago blues. The supporting players here form a great, I'm mean to say great, band on this album - Barrelhouse Chuck and Billy Flynn are among the very best at what they do. Willie's harp playing certainly isn't in the class of James Cotton or Little Walter, but he's a very good player, one who uses dynamics well, and plays harp very hard, which is something a lot of men in their '70s (Willie was born in January 1936) no longer want to do (or are simply unable to do.) Playing blues harp well is a physically demanding business. Barrelhouse Chuck has been mentioned several times during the course of this review, and for good reason; his work absolutely shines here.
It's time to rate this bad boy; STLBluesometer rating of 3.5 for Born In Arkansas. If there had been a little more variety in song styles, and a little less reliance on well-known blues melodies, the rating would have been even higher.
- aka "East