Personnel: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (vocals, harmonica, drums); Willie "Big Eyes" Smith; Bob Stroger, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones (bass guitar); Little Frank Krakowski, Billy Flynn, Bob Margolin, Johnny Rapp (guitar); James Cotton , Bob Corritore (harmonica); Pinetop Perkins (piano); Kenny Smith (drums).
Photographers: Bob Corritore; Clark Rigsby; Dick Rice; Robert Pasenko.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith is most often recalled as the longtime drummer in the Muddy Waters Band (he occupied the drum chair in the group from 1961 through 1980), but he was a harmonica player well before he was a drummer (his hard-charging harmonica can be heard on Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" from 1955) and he has led his own blues ensembles from time to time. Way Back, a pleasant set recorded in 2005 and produced by Bob Corritore, puts Smith front and center, and while no one would accuse him of being the equal of Muddy Waters as a bandleader, the 73-year-old Smith projects an intangible joy through the 11 songs here, half of which he wrote. Backed by what amounts to a superstar blues band, with the great, unsung Bob Margolin on guitar, a seemingly ageless 93-year-old Pinetop Perkins on piano, and guest shots by James Cotton and others, Smith delivers several variations on the good, old and undeniably durable Chicago blues shuffle, including the opener, a cover of Jimmy Reed's "Don't Say That No More" and a gleeful version of Waters' "Read Way Back," both of which feature Smith's steady and somehow endearingly fragile vocals, and his strong, unhurried harmonica lines. Smith does play drums on a pair of tracks, "Lowdown Blues" and "I Want You to Love Me (Trust Me)," as well, but most of the drumming is from Kenny "Beady Eyes" Smith, Willie's son. The clear highlight is a wonderfully simple, atmospheric, and haunting Willie Smith original, "Blues and Trouble," which builds powerfully on just Smith's vocal and harmonica and Margolin's brilliant electric slide guitar playing. Nothing here is going to reshape the contemporary blues world, and truthfully, these kinds of Chicago blues shuffles have been done a thousand times by a thousand blues bands. But maybe that's the point, actually. Smith is one of the musicians who helped create and shape those rhythms, and this album is evidence that he still knows what to do with them. ~ Steve Leggett
Dirty Linen (p.86) - "The sound is both classic and fresh....These pros know what to do, and they've done it here."
Living Blues (p.44) - "On 'Blues And Trouble' Smith and guitarist Margolin invoke the haunting Delta-to-Chicago postwar blues mythos with eerie intensity."
No Depression (p.122) - "Smith makes a smooth transition from sideman to frontman on WAY BACK, writing six of the eleven songs and demonstrating a spirited vocal style as lead singer."