*Veteran Chicago blues guitarist and vocalist Albert “Little Smokey” Smothers has died, his record producer said Tuesday. He was 71.
The versatile sideman and influential teacher of younger bluesmen died Saturday at Little Company of Mary Hospital of complications from diabetes, said Dick Shurman, his producer and a blues scholar.
“He knew it was time to go, and he went with grace,” Shurman said.
A native of Tchula, Miss., Smothers moved to Chicago as a teenager. Following the lead of his older brother, the late Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, he learned guitar and was soon performing with such artists as Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter.
Shurman described Smothers as having a smooth, jazzy, contemporary blues style, with heavy influences from B.B. King, Albert King and Kenny Burrell.
Smothers was known as a mentor to aspiring musicians, particularly guitarist Elvin Bishop [listen below] and the late Paul Butterfield, founders of the influential crossover group, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Both men were students at the University of Chicago when they met Smothers and fell under his influence.
Bishop said Smothers began teaching him blues guitar techniques after meeting him at a South Side music club. Smothers recruited Butterfield after hearing the younger man play harmonica on the sidewalk in the Hyde Park neighborhood of South Side Chicago.
Shurman said Smothers partially retired from music in the early 1970s to support his family by working as a heavy equipment operator and chef, but he returned to the blues in 1978. He continued performing until several years ago, when his health went into a serious decline. Shurman said Smothers lost both legs to diabetes in recent years
Smothers was featured as a sideman or band leader on at least six albums, beginning with George “Mojo” Buford’s “Chicago Blues Summit” in 1981. His last released album, 2009’s “Chicago Blues Buddies,” was a compilation of his musical collaborations with Bishop.
Smothers was also a featured artist in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 public television series, “The Blues.”
He is survived by his wife, Shirley, two brothers, two sisters, three children and nine grandchildren.