The story of Smokey Wilson’s life and career is an interesting one. His work as a bluesman has spanned well over 50 years, yet not many outside of the Mississippi Delta or the Southern California areas knew of him until the early 1990s. Smokey Wilson had been one of the best kept local secrets, yet he influenced and schooled a new generation of blues singers and musicians from the stage. Many of these “students” launched careers that would soon eclipse Smokey’s, yet he continued performing year after year at his own successful night club. In 1977 and 1978 he recorded “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Smokey Wilson Sings The Blues” for the Bihari brothers’ Big Town label. Although he had a good amount of regional success with his Big Town releases and performed at several large festivals on the West Coast, Smokey would have to wait another 15 years for his international star to rise. This is the tale of a man who worked hard, overcame obstacles that would likely have defeated others and never lost his focus. Smokey Wilson has earned the right to be called a true Mississippi bluesman.
The first time I saw Smokey Wilson perform, backed by the William Clarke Band, was at an outdoor festival in Hollywood, California in 1991. This was before his association with Ron Levy and Rounder Records. It was a fantastic show. I remember being amazed at his vocal abilities. He had a powerful voice that could range from soft and velvety smooth to a rough growling “Wolf” voice at will. His guitar playing was razor sharp and stinging: he made every note count. Being somewhat of a blues historian, I remember wondering why I hadn’t heard of or seen Smokey perform before this and thought that he must have been kept in hiding somewhere. I later found out he had been “hiding” at The Pioneer Club for the last 20 years, not far from where the festival was held!
One afternoon in the mid-1990s he phoned me. He needed a guitar player for just one gig in Fresno, California, because his regular guitarist couldn’t make it. This was nearly a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, but I was thrilled to have been asked and honoured to play with him. What a night we had! Smokey was in great form and we played everything from Howling Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning to Tyrone Davis’ Turning Point. That one night gig turned into a permanent spot in his band. Smokey soon hired my good friend Paul Slobod on bass guitar and, along with Aaron Tucker on drums, this would remain the Smoke And Fire Band until Smokey retired from national touring.
These Big Town recordings are a key element in Smokey’s career and at last they will be readily available on CD for all to hear. Some of these tracks are previously unreleased material, and that alone makes this compilation an invaluable part of Smokey Wilson’s history.
By “Andy T” Talamantez