Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book The Time!! How Willie "Big Eyes" Smith Got Me to Start My Own Record Label.

Bob Stroger, Liz Mandeville, Willie Smith
at the 2010 AK Blues and Heritage Fest.

Sitting around waiting for your life to begin? I'm here to tell you CARPE DIEM! Seize this day and make your dreams happen.
Nobody is promised a tomorrow. Wouldn't you hate to wake up dead only to find you'd blown your chance to be what you could've been?
Don't wait for somebody to discover you! You have to discover yourself before other people will recognize what a truely amazing being you are!

Here's the true story of how my friend,
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith 
helped me do just that:

One night, early last spring, I went to Rosa's Lounge where I'd been invited to help Amy Bratt celebrate her birthday. Amy was radiant, her favorite music was playing and her favorite cupcakes were being consumed.

It was a star studded night, Debby Davies band was headlining, with Tony Rogers, Nora Jean Wallace and her manager Lois in the audience.  Mama Rosa was doing a brisk business as Joined At the Hip's Robert Stroger and Willie"Big Eyes" Smith were also there celebrating their Grammy win that night with (long-time Legendary Blues Band Guitarist) Billy and Mary Flynn along with a jovial bar crowd.

Bob, Willie and I had a long and storied history. I'd met and played with Bob Stroger back in the 80's when I first happened on the Chicago Blues Scene. Bob Stroger, with his red Custom bass rig and unshakable groove, could  make any band sound tight. He still does, as he proved later that night when he and Willie took the stage with Debbie and her assorted special guests.

Back in the early 90's, when guitarist Billy Flynn had taken a sabbatical to help Mary raise their daughter, my then husband, Willie Greeson, had left our band to fulfill a life's dream: he joined the Legendary Blues Band. I got to know the Smith family during those early mornings when I'd drive down to the south side to drop my husband off at their crib before the bands' many road trips. The house was always neat, warm and welcoming and filled with the aroma of Lou's fried chicken getting it's last browning before she packed it up for her husband to take on the road.

Later, when I was playing with Aron Burton's Band at Blue Chicago, Willie Smith would sub for his son Kenny, who at that time was our regular drummer before Dave Jefferson joined up following Albert Kings' demise. I was there the night Jude Curio (Aron's GF at the time and an avid blues fan and documentarian) re-named a then 19 year old Kenny Smith.
"So what's your name and who are you?" Jude demanded.
"I'm Kenny Smith, Willies son" Kenny explained.
"Well if he's "Big Eyes" that must make you "Beady Eyes!" Jude proclaimed.
Although I'd hardly call Kenny Smith "Beady" eyed, the name stuck and there it is.

Willie Smith's brilliantly sloppy yet somehow solidly in the pocket shuffle, his down to earth attitude and professionalism always made him a pleasure to play with and to be around.

But back to Rosa's. I walked over to my two long time friends, Willie and Bob, and offered to buy them a celebratory cocktail.
"Man, " I said to Willie, "I want to win a Grammy, what do I need to win a Grammy, Willie?"
Without blinking an eye he answered "Patience!"
We all laughed, then I said "Willie, I suggested to Michael Frank back in '98 that I wanted to make a record with you, Willie Kent, Allen Batts and George Baze. He nixed it. He said I'd be over shadowed by my side men."
Willie looked incredulous, he said "Well, first I don't know how you could be over shadowed by the guys playing with you, and besides that, all them cats but Allen is dead!"
"Well," I went on, "I still want to make a record with you."
Willie didn't hesitate. "Book the time!" he said. "Look, I never made a dime in the music business until I started making my own records. Last year I did good business, my son helped me and we did it all ourselves. If I can do it, you can. And you should!"
He was very emphatic and actually named some pretty impressive figures. He said "Kenny's pretty savvy, he'll help you. Give him a call, I'll help you too! Book the time!"

The very next day I called my friend Jim Godsey, who's engineered on all my recorded work. I said "Jim, I want to get back in the studio. I need a good sounding live room where I can record all the rhythm tracks at the same time, like back in the day. I'm paying for this out of my own pocket, so I need a guy that'll work with us"
Jim said "Give me a few days, let me make some calls."

Less than a week later he called me and said "There's a guy in Palatine in the basement of the old Harris Bank building who's got what we need."

I trust Jim's judgement so we went on and booked two afternoons at Planet10 in Palatine where a smiling Jimmy Johnson greeted us with steaming hot coffee and a warm, organic sounding room. Willie Smith,  Darryl Wright (Bassist/arranger) and I went in and knocked out 5 tracks that first afternoon.

It's a good thing I didn't wait around because, as most of you blues folk know, Willie Smith was laid to rest before 2011 was out. Thanks, Willie, it would never have happened without you.

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