Kenny Smith picked up drumsticks and a passion for the blues at the knees of his father and the music legends who were his dad’s friends and colleagues.
“I was born into it, sort of,” Mr. Smith says of the music community he calls “a small big world.” Willie “Big Eye” Smith, Kenny’s dad, played drums and harmonica with the Muddy Waters band for 18 years.
Muddy Waters and the other famous bluesmen who hung out in the Smith living room in Hyde Park encouraged young Kenny’s music. They also mentored him, dispensing practical “advice to help me succeed” in the music business, he says – advice he says helps keep him grounded to this day.
Willie Smith let his son watch rehearsals and, in summer, took him to concerts. But although Kenny was headed for music from an early age, he says his parents gave first priority to his education. They made sure that, although he began playing drums professionally at age 13, he played shows only on weekends during high school.
Willie Smith and his wife also insisted that their son finish college. Given that “the music business can have ups and downs,” he says, he is glad he followed their advice. Although connected with a “big network of musicians, promoters and producers,” he says he “held back” while in college, waiting till after graduation to play outside Chicago.
Since he was already learning blues drumming from the best of the best, he studied music theory in college to augment his experience.
His major was business management. “That plays a big part in keeping organized,” he says. Organization is no small concern for a man who plays with 20 different bands and is booked a year in advance. He keeps both computer and hard copy versions of his complex calendar after suffering the consequences of a computer crash.
Mr. Smith performs various kinds of music – including Celtic – but says, “I learned it all from the blues.” He has played on more than 50 albums, he says, and has drummed for, among others, the Chicago blues band Mississippi Heat for 15 years and the Matt Stedman Band for five or six. He has appeared locally at Evanston’s S.P.A.C.E. with the Dave Specter and Rocking Johnny bands.
Yet playing with the Willie “Big Eye” Smith Band is unique. He looks for words to describe the extraordinary “big bond” he feels when he performs with his father. Playing onstage together, he says, they are “talking without one word.”
It is not unusual for Kenny Smith to go abroad 14 times in a year, he says. Sometimes he plays and returns the same day. On the eve of a month-long tour of Europe and Africa, Mr. Smith has to mow the lawn of his Evanston home. But he alludes to the “fast life” on the road and the potential for musicians to “get caught up in the wrong things.” He says, “We’re all passionate about music, but we have to keep a balance with life.”
There are “plenty of opportunities for drugs and alcohol,” he says. “I tend to not touch any of that.” Playing a show, he says, is “like going to work: I want to be focused.”
Between cities the musicians travel by coach. Televisions and games help pass the time, and, he says, “Everybody loves the DVD player.” Quarters are close. “Once we get to the airport, we will never be more than six feet away from each other” on the tour, he says.
The musicians, some of whom “knew me when I was in Pampers,” are like family, Kenny Smith says: A problem arises and “you work it out.” In addition, he has developed his own coping strategies, including traveling as light as possible, trying to eat well (on tour in Europe he frequently buys vegetables and says he even has “a little cooking pot”). And he says he “cleans everything” to avoid getting sick.
On this trip, he will connect with two different bands. The first, made up of 10 blues musicians, will move from town to town in France promoting a new CD, “Chicago Living History, Vol. 2,” to be released later in the U.S as a follow-up to their Grammy-nominated Vol. 1 disc. Then he will “jump bands,” he says, and spend two weeks conducting workshops with children in Africa under the auspices of the U.S. embassy.
When not touring, Mr. Smith is a child-development teacher at the St. Vincent DePaul Center in Chicago. There he involves as many as 30 children at a time in his music projects. Some take photos, others write liner notes and all make up and perform songs they then record on
Along with teaching, Mr. Smith has written and recorded “songs about learning” for children from infants to 6 years of age. He sees his “The Brain Boogie” (2005, Big Eye Records) and “The Brain Boogie Vol. 2” (2010) as another “way of giving back to society.”
The 36-year-old musician says he “set goals early and has accomplished those. Now it’s, ‘Let’s see what happens next.’” Soon he may be playing blues in the night to a new audience; he and his wife are expecting their first child in February. “I am the night owl,” he says, “so that’ll be a lot of my duty.