WHAT LEGENDS ARE MADE OF

By Keith S. Clements, Secretary, KYANA Blues Society

What makes a legend? It is definitely an over-used word these days, but three of the members of the Legendary Blues Band who performed at Uncle Pleasant's on Friday, April 21, could tell some stories.

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, the drummer, joined the Muddy Waters Band in 1961, replacing Francis Clay, and continued playing with the band for 18 years. Calvin Jones joined Muddy's group on bass guitar in 1971 after playing several years with Howling Wolf. But it was a real thrill to see Little Smokey (Abe) Smothers playing guitar after several years of inactivity. Yes, the blues has the Smothers Brothers, too. Little Smokey's older brother Big Smokey (Otis) is also getting some long-deserved recognition in Chicago with his down-home, Jimmy Reed-style of music. His talent is showcased on a recent album on Read Beans called Got My Eyes On You.

Now let's get back to Little Smokey and his legacy to being a legend. He came to Chicago in 1956 from Tchula, Mississippi and started playing around the city with Howling Wolf, Jo Jo Williams, and later toured with Earl Hooker. Then in the middle-60s he got a new band together which included Paul Butterfield, whom he overheard playing harp in Hyde Park, and Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold who both came over from Wolf's band. At that time he was also teaching Elvin Bishop various guitar techniques. Mike Bloomfield then joined the band and, when Butterfield recorded his first album on Elektra, Smokey was dropped in favor of using Bloomfield on the record. The rest of that band is blues history. So much for legends.

Today Little Smokey's style shows a lot of influence of Otis Rush and Magic Sam, with a little Kenny Burrell's jazz influence which he squeezed out of his beautiful old Gibson guitar.

The personnel in the current Legendary Blues Band have been playing together for almost a year. Calvin and Willie were with the original band when it included Pinetop Perkins on piano and Jerry Portnoy on harmonica. This was the group that emerged from the Muddy Water band of the 70s and recorded two records on Rounder. This second-generation band has now added Madison Slim on harp and Smokey and Billy Flynn both on guitars. Flynn could not make this tour and Mel Ford substituted for him. The band has just come out with their first album on the Ichiban label titled Woke Up With the Blues, and they performed several songs that were on the LP. The record is well produced and has more depth and variety than the two previous records.

Most of the band's music were covers of other Chicago traditional blues standards, and I would have liked to hear a little more original material. That may happen as the group plays together longer. The absence of Billy Flynn, who is touted as being an excellent young blues guitarist, may have diminished the excitement the band still lacks.

All in all this third KYANA Blues Society-sponsored event was an excellent show with a good turnout that included three sets and an encore of over two hours of solid blues. Each performer except Willie shared vocals. Willie deserved to have been featured with a drum solo. Madison Slim's harp playing was strong and punctuated the music of the other players, drawing on the inspiration of Little Walter and Slim Harpo material. Calvin Jones' steely bass playing and Howling Wolf-influenced vocals balanced the band's diverse background.

The Legendary Blues Band is currently touring through the south and will be heading their van out to Virginia after Louisville. Calvin Jones said that the band will be playing at the Arkansas River Blues Festival in July and will travel to Spain later this year.

Let's hope the Legends return to Louisville soon.