Saturday, September 17, 2011

RIP Willie Smith: Pinetop and the Willie "Big Eyes" Smith Band at Jazz Alley, Seattle, May 2010

(Willie Smith died yesterday.  Here's a story I wrote after being lucky enough to get myself , my wife and my daughter down to see him perform with Pinetop Perkins.)

Remember the game where you connect actors to Kevin Bacon? It works so much better with the Blues.

Last night we went to see Pinetop Perkins and the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith band at Jazz Alley in Seattle. The connections were everywhere.

Boogie woogie and blues pianist Daryl Davis, who often backs Chuck Berry, had told me to send a hello to Mr. Perkins, who is a friend and mentor. I tried to oblige while Perkins was signing autographs after the show but Davis had beat me to it: “Oh, I just talked to him,” said Perkins’ manager. He’s doing a show with Pinetop in Washington, D.C. next week!”

Drummer “The Amazing” Jimmy Mayes announced one of his own connections early in the show, when he sang “Bright Lights, Big City.” “I had the honor of doing this one with Mr. Jimmy Reed shortly before he passed,” said Mayes, who wore a light pink suit and had his hair slicked back and hanging. Mayes smiled throughout the show, looking immensely happy to be a part of it.

And who wouldn’t be? Bob Stroger, who Smith called “The Best Dressed Man of the Blues,” wore a black suit and hat and kept a steady beat and an impish, enlightened smile on his own face all night. He sang “Key to the Highway” in a low bass voice that matched his guitar while he flirted with the women up front. Stroger is new to me but not to the blues—his connections include Odie Payne, who drummed on a number of Chuck Berry and other Chess numbers. He played with Otis Rush and Jimmy Rogers. He got his start in the music business after watching his brother-in-law play with J. B. Hutto. (There’s a page on this site devoted to Hutto, who was in Seattle for a while in the late 1970s—a minor miracle, at least for me.) We sat close to Stroger and it was a delight to watch the fingers of his right hand glide effortlessly over pickups.

(If you want to learn more about Bob Stroger, here’s a great interview:

Guitarist “Little” Frank Krakowski is the youngster of the group, but has spent about half his life playing with Smith and Perkins, and other legends like Hubert Sumlin. Read about him HERE. He played a Les Paul without distortion—clear, sweet notes, all night, with even a couple riffs from Mr. Berry thrown in. “He’s been with Pinetop and me since he was 16,” said Smith, “And he’s become a fine guitarist.”

Smith himself came out in a giant grey pinstriped shirt and grey pants, his grey hair pulled back into a bit of a pony tail. He was a modern, stylish contrast to formally stylish elegance of Perkins and Stroger. When he played harmonica he danced, kicked, stooped, bent and knelt with youthful abandon. I wrote about the Waters biography “Can’t Be Satisfied” some months ago. Smith was an important source for that book, and his story peppers the later pages.

Smith carried the show for five or six numbers, blowing his harp, singing, sweating and smiling. He knelt down a couple times to blow solos for an appreciative ten year old girl who was sitting up front.

Then came Pinetop, slowly, escorted past the bar and up to the piano. It sort of looks like the pope arriving, but better, a dapper black hat bobbing just above the heads of seated patrons, causing a slight ruffle of turned heads. When he got to the piano I couldn’t even see him. The first few notes were tentative. The band got quiet and seemed a little flustered, eyeing each other, playing soft, searching for a groove. After the strength of the preceding numbers I was scared of a musical disaster. And then the hammers started plunking a steady blues, and out comes a voice, clear and strong from behind the music stand of the Steinway. I got up and ran to a different spot where I could stand and see.

Perkins is 97 years old. His spine is bent. His hands look like my mother’s hands when she was 93. But he is travelling, leading a band, singing the blues, and playing a strong, boogie-woogie beat.

When I went to Blueberry Hill I was touched to see how the band supported and surrounded Chuck Berry. There’s nothing frail about Chuck Berry, who is, after all, a sprightly 83. But when women were invited on stage his son moved protectively to his side, and when he forgot a lyric Jimmy Marsala was always there to remind him.

Perkins doesn’t seem to be forgetting the words—but there’s a similar reverence and support from the bandstand. His friend and former Muddy Waters band mate Smith rallies the audience. There’s a sense of love on stage that’s amazing.

And he makes them work, just like Berry. I heard them scrambling at least once to find the key. “It’s G!” said Krakowski, while Smith searched for the proper harmonica.

After the show the band hung around to talk, sell CDs and sign autographs. Drummer Mayes flirted with my daughter when she ran to get Pinetop’s signature. Smith posed for photos and bent carefully to get my daughter’s name right. I heard someone say it looked like he was having fun on stage. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Smith. “I see these poor guys going off every day to work at a job they hate. That’s not for me. I’m up there doing what I love.”

And Pinetop? He wasn’t talking, but he sat behind the reception desk signing CDs with a little smile.


Here's a link to the band:

And here they are all performing in Chicago.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you saw a concert for the ages...
CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger

Anonymous said...

Peter, We were there as well sitting to the immediate left of Bob. We saw the show last year and will come back every year as long as they do this. We had the honor of going to the after party at Hwy 99 with them. Lee Oskar came by and it was great seeing the two harp players on stage together. They are really down to earth great people. Willie even gave us relationship advice when he found out is was our anniversary. Cheers! Carolyn & Jeff

Peter said...

Carolyn & Jeff--

Was that you greeting the performers like old friends as they got on and off the stage? With the big camera? If you have a nice photo, I'd love to use it here! Peter