L to R: Billy The Kid Emerson, Jimmy Dawkins, Jim Simpson, Lester Davenport, Little Smokey Smothers, Eddie C.Campbell, Good Rockin’ Charles, Chico Chism.
Photo by Jim O’Neal.
I met Little Smokey Smothers in Buddy Guy’s South Side Chicago club in 1979 at a gathering organised by the criminally neglected blues guitar man Jimmy “Don’t Call Me Fastfingers” Dawkins. I was planning that year’s American Blues Legends UK/European tour and, as so often before, asked Jimmy to help me get the team together. To my eternal embarrassment he insisted that I audition all the musicians – “Do the job properly, make them take it seriously or you’ll never get the respect of these guys.”
Along with Smokey were Eddie C. Campbell, Chico Chism, Billy the Kid Emerson, Good Rockin’ Charles and Lester Mad Dog Davenport – and, needless to say, they were all terrific.
The next week we went into Odyssey Recording Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the former Chess Records studio. Stones fans will remember that address from their landmark recording of the same name. At the time of our session the studio was owned and operated by former Chess Records chief engineer, Ed Cody. This was one of the easiest albums I ever produced, cutting 15 tracks in two days. The irrepressible Jimmy Dawkins contributed some fine guitar and bass guitarist Willie Black also came along for the ride.
Big Bear had been organising American Blues Legends tours since 1973, always recording an album at the end of the tour, to be released some 10 or 12 weeks later. It was Dawkins who suggested that we record pre-tour in order to benefit from sales of the LP at each performance and, of course, that made a lot more sense with the package typically playing some 40 shows across a dozen countries.
I got back to England, via Kansas City, Missouri, where we cut the Claude Williams “Kansas City Giants” album, and set about settling the tour details. Everything so far had gone swimmingly – the album, which was all I could have wished for, was in production, travel plans were in place – when I received a phone call from an extremely distressed Little Smokey Smothers.
In line with several of the other guys set to tour he had been forced to take a day job, simply because he had a family to feed, no reflection on his musical ability. Smokey was working days as a labourer in the construction industry and his boss was irked that a black worker under his control was about to set off for foreign climes, get paid for it and, for once, enjoy the respect of white audiences. So he told Smokey, in no uncertain terms, that, if he took off to Europe on this tour, his job in Chicago would not be there on his return. Smokey had a family, he was the bread-winner, so really he had no choice other than, yet again in his life, to toe the line drawn by the Man.
With the help of Jimmy Dawkins – who else? – we replaced Smokey with bass guitarist Nolan Struck, and the tour was all we could have hoped for. But I was angry, still am in fact, that that lowlife of a foreman, for no discernible reason, would deliberately block a rare opportunity for a struggling musician to enhance his career prospects.
Little Smokey Smothers was born Albert Abraham “Abe” Smothers in 1939 in Tchula, Mississippi. He was the younger brother of Otis, Big Smokey Smothers, who played with, amongst others, Wolf, Muddy, Jimmy Rogers and Bo Diddley, and Little Smokey was often confused, unsurprisingly, with his older brother. Smokey was playing guitar and singing on street corners back home, but, when he was 15, he upped and went to Chicago, quickly slotting in with the Maxwell Street fraternity, working with Arthur Big Boy Spires, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Lazy Bill Lucas. In 1958, not yet 20 years old, he joined the band of Howlin’ Wolf, recording for Chess the following year.
At one time Smokey was playing in the bands of both Muddy and Wolf, much to the disapproval of Wolf. Someone would always tell Wolf that Smokey had been playing with Muddy and he would tell Smokey, “I heard you hangin’ with them Muddy Waters boys. They ain’t nothing but drunks. I don’t want my guys hangin’ with them guys.”
When he left Wolf, he formed his own Little Smokey Smothers and the Pipelayers – there has to be some story behind that – before becoming a founding member of the ground-breaking Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Butterfield had first heard Smokey playing on a sidewalk in the Hyde Park neighbourhood. When the time came for Smokey to move on, he was replaced in the Butterfield band by Californian guitar man Elvin Bishop and that was the beginning of a remarkable and enduring friendship. Smokey mentored Elvin who remembered, “He’d take me over to his place, have neck bones and beans going on the stove, and say, ‘Come over here.’ He’d lift the lid and say, ‘Smell this.’ I’d reply, ‘Oh, that’s good!’ and Smokey would say, ‘When you get this part down, you can have some.’”
For much of the 1960s Smokey was where he belonged, playing in the bands of such musicians as Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Earl Hooker and Junior Wells, but by the end of that decade work in the music business was drying up, so he took a day job in construction in order to feed his family.
Smokey Smothers’ comeback came in late 1979, when his children were grown, recording with Mojo Buford on the Chicago Blues Summit album, and a year later he quit his day job. The loss to the construction industry was massively outweighed by the gain to the business of the blues. He appeared with The Legendary Blues Band, played on their 1989 “Wake Up With The Blues” album and was back in the swim. In 1993 Elvin Bishop played on Smokey’s first album under his own name, “Bossman! The Chicago Blues of Little Smokey Smothers” on the Dutch Black Magic label which also featured Smokey’s cousin, Lee Shot Williams. Another cousin was Lester Davenport who had recorded with Smokey on that Big Bear “American Blues Legends 79” album. Unlike his cousin Lester did get to play on that tour. Also in 1993 Elvin and Smokey appeared together at the Chicago Blues Festival which they were to repeat in 2000.
In 1995 ill luck again struck Smokey when he had to have open heart surgery, though, remarkably, just one year later, Smokey recorded his “Second Time Around” album, and three years later played at Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday party, jamming with Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood at the San Diego Blues Festival. Bruce Iglauer recorded him live in San Francisco for his Alligator label, the album “That’s My Partner” again with the ever-loyal Elvin Bishop. Martin Scorsese featured film from his live performances in his TV series, “The Blues”, and in 2006 Smokey and Elvin appeared together in Ground Zero club in Clarksdale.
Even worse health problems came when Smokey, suffering from diabetes, had both legs amputated. Elvin Bishop organised a compilation album featuring their performances together, some dating back to 1992, under the title “Chicago Blues Brothers”, with proceeds going towards Smokey’s medical costs.
The end was clearly in sight and Little Smokey Smothers died in a Chicago hospital in November, 2010. He was 71 years old.
He was an unsung hero of Chicago South Side Blues, who never did find the national or international success that his talent warranted and was late in getting any appropriate recognition.