Mississippi Writers and Musicians
MISSISSIPPI MUSICIANS: Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers


Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers Otis Smothers album

Major Works

  • Chicago Blues, Vol. 1
  • Second Time Around
  • Got My Eyes on You
  • Drivin Blues
  • Sings the Backporch Blues
  • Offer You Can't Refuse with The Paul Butterfield Blues
  • It's Great to Be Rich with Bo Diddley
  • Goin' Back Home Howlin' Wolf
  • Change My Way  Howlin' Wolf 

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Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers: A Biography
By Janet Browning (SHS)

On March 21, 1929, Otis " Smokey" Smothers was born in Lexington, Mississippi.   He was raised in the Tchula area along with his younger brother Abe.  His brother, known as "Little Smokey," was ten years younger than Otis was and ended up following Otis to the Chicago.  As a child, Smothers learned to play the harmonica and the guitar from an aunt.

In 1946, "Big Smokey" Smothers moved to Chicago, Illinois, to begin a music career.  Five years after moving to the Windy City, Smothers made his first stage appearance with Johnny Williams and Johnny Young at the Square Deal Club.  During the early 1950's, Smothers played with such musicians as Big Boy Spires, Earl Hooker, Henry Strong, and cousin, Lester Davenport.  He also played with the famous blues musician Bo Diddley.

In 1956, Howlin' Wolf invited Smothers to play rhythm guitar for several Chess studio sessions between 1956 and 1957. During these sessions they played songs such as "Who's Been Talking," "Tell Me," and "Going Back Home."  He also played second guitar on "The Natchez Burning" and "I Asked For Water."  He was later in a Muddy Waters' junior band with Freddie King, Mojo Elem, and drummer T.J. McNulty.

When Chess Records rejected him, Smothers recorded with Federal Records in August 1960.  Federal found Smothers' style so appealing that they recorded twelve tracks by Smothers and Freddie King.  King handled lead guitar during these sessions.  After producer Sonny Thompson encouraged  Smothers to pattern his music after the style of Jimmy Reed, he recorded "Honey, I Ain't Teasin'" as part of the twelve track session.  For  Federal Records, Smothers also did a four-song session in 1962 that included "Way Up in the Mountains of Kentucky" and an updated version of the classic "Work With Me Annie" ("Twist With Me Annie), originally done by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.  On the song "Work With Me Annie," Little Boyd accompanied Smothers on the harmonica.  In 1968, as a member of Muddy Waters' band, he recorded his single "I Got My Eyes on You.”

By the1970's, Smothers had almost given up music saying, “Everybody can’t be president.”  But in 1986, a small Chicago recording label called Red Beans Records, brought Smothers back with an LP called “Got My Eyes On You.”  By the end of his career,  Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers had played with many different musicians.  These include the following: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, Abe Locke, J.T. Brown, Little Johnny Jones, and Willie Dixon.  On a hot day in Chicago, Illinois, July 23, 1993, the great blues man, Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, died.

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Interview with Twist Turner (friend and band mate of Otis Smothers) via E-mail
By Janet Browning (SHS)

Janet,

Wow, I'm sure Smokey would be proud to know that someone in his home state was doing a paper on him, or even cared that he was even born.  I wish he was still here so you could talk to him in person.   He was the nicest, sweetest, gentlest man I ever met.  I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.  I for one really miss him being around to hang out with.

I'll try and answer what I can.  I played drums with Smokey off and on for 3 or 4 years or so, and we were friends from 1975 till his death.  I never really asked him any personal stuff so I might not be able to help with everything

1.  When did you meet Otis Smothers? and where? Janet Browning, SHS researcher

I really don't remember where we met.  Probably somewhere on the southside of Chicago, possibly the Checkerboard Lounge,  which was owned by bluesman Buddy Guy at the time. Like a lot of other bluesmen, Smokey was a pretty heavy drinker when I met him, so I don't think I met him outside of his own neighborhood.  Probably around 1975 or so.  (Smokey quit drinking around 1980 or so)

Smokey used to ride an old balloon tire bicycle from the 50's that had a cooler attached to it with some dry ice in it.  He sold ice cream bars to the neighborhood children every summer.  Everyone knew and loved him.

2.  Do you know his parents' names? his siblings names?

Don't know his parents names.  He has a brother Abe "Little Smokey Smothers" who is a guitarist in Chicago and still active today.  I work with him occasionally and did a gig with the 2 of them together once. If you would like to call Little Smokey (Abe) for info, his phone number is (773)324-5513.

3.  What was he like to work with?

Smokey was very easy to work with.  He never complained about anything, just let you do your thing while he did his.  Sometimes his playing was a little rough around the edges, he might not make all the changes  in a 12 bar pattern right on time, but that's what made it interesting.  A lot of players who grew up playing acoustic guitar by themselves play that way.

One funny thing about him was I worked with him for about 2 years at a club every other Sunday afternoon.  I was his drummer but he never said to me, will you do this job with me every other Sunday?  Instead he would call me every other Sunday early in the morning to ask me would I work with him that afternoon.

4.  How successful was his style and music?

I don't know if you could say Smokey ever really got the recognition he deserved.  The style of music he was playing was not really his own, it was just pretty much 1950's style, Mississippi influenced, electric Chicago blues.  In the 50's there were hundreds of guys in Chicago from Mississippi who played like that.  He did make some very good records though, and even wrote a song or two for Muddy Waters.

5.  Did he ever win awards or was he ever recognized for his songs?

I don't know about awards, probably not, but I'm not really sure.  I think a to of people who know blues know him as the writer of a couple of Muddy Waters songs.  (I wish I could remember which songs.  I think one was "I got my eyes on you")

6.  Do you know who influenced him?

No, I'm not really sure.  I don't even know if he was playing guitar before he came to Chicago.

There was a feature article on him and his brother in Living Blues magazine in the late 70's or early eighties, you might try a library and see if you can find a copy of it.  Also you might check the web site, I think it is called All Music Guide, they have biographies online.

I hope that helps;  feel free to email me if you have anymore questions.

Twist Turner

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Timeline

  • Born March 21, 1929, in Lexington, Mississippi
  • Moved to Chicago, IL in 1946
  • First stage appearance in 1951 at the Square Deal Club
  • Played second guitar for Howlin' Wolf's band in 1956, 'The Natchez Burning'
  • Recorded for Federal in August 1960
  • Updated Hank Ballard's "Twist With Me Annie" in 1962
  • Made a single ("I Got My Eyes on You") with Gamma in 1968
  • Came back in 1986 with an LP called Got My Eyes on You
  • Died on July 23, 1993 in Chicago, Illinois 

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Critique of Big Smokey Smother's Songs
By Janet Browning (SHS)

Big Smokey's style of music was mainly laid-back.  He played rough-edge blues because he taught himself.  His music was not well-refined like many musicians.  If you enjoy listening to Z Z Top, then you would probably like Big Smokey's song "Do The Thing."  This song is not as laid-back as most of his music.  To listen to some clips , visit  www.sonicnet.com/artistinfo/500843.html or http://www.checkout.com/music/title/info/0,7642,319779,00.html

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Bibliography

Dahl, Bill. "Otis Smokey Smothers." All Music Guide. 2000. 10 May 2000. <http://allmusic.com>.

Larkin, Colin, ed. The Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. vol. 5. New York City, New York: Stockton Press & Guiness Publishing Ltd, 1995. 6 vols.

"Otis Smokey Smothers." Discography. 15 May 2000. <http://music.hippo.net/O/Otis_Smokey_Smothers.html>.

Pier Borra, Jenny Smith. "Otis Smokey Smothers." Sonicnet.com. 2000. 16 May 2000. <http://www.sonicnet.com>.

You can download some MP3's of Smokey's here
http://soley.zodchiy.ru/O/Otis_Smokey_Smothers.html

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