Bob Stroger & Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith
Keepin It Together
Big Eyes Records
By Lady K.
If you are a true blues fan, you’ll know the names involved in this recording and just seeing them will make you smile, but hearing them play will make you smile so big, you’ll unzip the top of your head. This IS the blues, my friends!
There are twelve cuts on this recording and all but one was penned by either Bob Stroger or Kenny Smith. One cut, “Old Woman Sweetheart,” was written and previously recorded by Willie “Big Eyes” Smith not long before his passing and was on the CD, “Born In Arkansas.” It was added to this disc as a tribute to Kenny’s father Willie. While on tour Stroger and Smith came up with the idea of doing a CD. They brain stormed and not long after that “Keepin It Together” was born.
The melding of a living legend and a legend in the making is part of what makes this CD work. Bob Stroger and Kenny Smith have both won Grammy Awards. Stroger has been active in the blues scene for over 60 years. He has his own band and has also worked with such notables as Otis Rush, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Rogers and Eddie King of course Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who is the connecting point of this partnership. Kenny has worked with, among others, second generation blues man, Big Bill Morganfield, (son of Muddy Waters) and other Water’s alums, such as Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, and James Cotton. I’ve said it before but it dares repeating that Kenny is the quintessence of the expression, “That apple didn’t fall far from the tree!” The first time that I heard him, I missed his introduction and didn’t know who he was. I turned to my husband and said, “You know, this drummer reminds me of Willie Smith!” He replied, “Honey, that’s Willie’s son, Kenny!”
Because Stroger and Smith (with the exception of the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s song, “Old Woman Sweetheart”) perform scattered tracks on this disc, I will address them by artist rather than how they appear on this recording. This disc begins with “Born In Missouri” a Bob Stroger song that has a style much like “Rock Me Baby” but with a very different melody. It is somewhat of an autobiography. He tells of places he has traveled to and the woman he loves, “I was born in Missouri, but Chicago is my home. I got a little girl in Switzerland, oh, an’ that’s where I belong!” Stroger’s next tune, “Come on Home,” is a funky number in which he fesses up that he’s “Been a bad little boy, I know I done you wrong!” In track five, “That’s My Name,” Stroger declares, “They can call me what they want to, but my real name is the blues!” This song is set to a meter much like “High-heeled Sneakers” but with personal touch! Track seven, “So Sweet” is a sentimental slow blues that opens with a Jimmy Reed inspired harmonica riff. Stroger’s last composition on this CD, “My First Love,” has a blues roots style with unique instrumentation, featuring Joe Filisko on harmonica, Billy Flynn on guitar and mandolin and Stroger on bass and vocals that perfectly reflect the sentiments of this song.
Sandwiched between Stroger and the younger Smith is “Willie Big Eyes” Smith’s previously released tune, “Old Woman Sweetheart,” an up-town, up-tempo blues. It opens with gospel style shoutin’ and slide guitar. Although Willie was most commonly known for playing drums, he returned to his original instrument in this entry, playing harmonica and doesn’t miss a beat! The last phrase he sings in this tune sums things up, “Yes, old woman gonna love me right, while the young one take me to be a fool!” (Cougar Power, lol!)
Kenny’s first track, “Loosin My Mind,” opens with a train riff on the harmonica, followed by Kenny keepin’ that train goin’ down the track on the drums. Smith has a style that incorporates old school and modern blues with a touch of wit that comes thru clearly in this tune and others on this disc. His next track, “What Cha Say” is a slow stroll. Lamenting over a love gone wrong, this track features another living legend, Jerry Portnoy on harmonica. Smith’s voice works the tempo beautifully and Barrelhouse Chuck does Pinetop Perkins proud with his solo’s style! He ends with a taste of wit hollering, “Bye, bye, baby!” Smith gets funky on track six with “Love and Affection.” Though I’m not certain who is on guitar for the solos, I suspect that both Flynn and Krakowski split the duty and they added their own soulful touch. Smith really pours on the humor in “He Took Her” claiming in call and response style that “Bob Stroger done took her.” Between phrases, he exclaims, “What did you say? He stole her away. How can that be, he’s OLDER than me! Bob Stroger done took her, took my baby from me.” I suspect that it’s not true…but it sure is funny! Barrelhouse Chuck brings up-tempo shuffle, “Clever Mama” in on keys. Again, I’m not sure who’s on guitar for the solo, but it works!
The final track, “In My House” appropriately finds Smith musing, “In my house, I will always have my friends” and “So many days, wish I could change back the hands of time, just to have one more chance to see that sweet family of mine!” Barrelhouse once again adds a fine solo followed by Portnoy wailing on harmonica. The last verse finds Kenny reflecting on the influence his father had on him, “Been followin’ in your footsteps, yeah, since the baby age of two!” As you listen to the words, it becomes obvious that his heart is his “house.” Given the relationship Stroger and Portnoy had with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, it was a truly fitting way to close this recording, with sweet, fond memories of him. As long as his love for music is celebrated, he will live on!