The Blues is a hybrid animal, absorbing elements and influences from all around and incorporating them into new and progressive styles of music. Individual musicians absorb the influences of others, consciously or otherwise, and sometimes they even openly steal others work to present as their own. This is just the way it has played out since the origins of the Blues, but it leaves some tremendous talents standing on the sidelines wondering why they are not in the game. One such character is ‘Blue Smitty’, a powerful singer and guitarist who made a great contribution to the transformation of the Blues from acoustic to electric music in Chicago just after WWII.
Born in Marietta AK in 1924, Claude Smith grew up in Chicago, but moved back to Arkansas as a teenager. He recalls how his guitar skills came as “a gift” when he was 14, as he amazed his family by suddenly playing all night on the back porch with a borrowed instrument. Claude was conscripted into the Army in WWII and entertained his fellow troops at their Louisiana base with jazzy one-string guitar runs in the style of Charlie Christian. When he was discharged, Claude wound up in Memphis
for a spell, and the following year he was playing clubs in Chicago with a couple of young men called Jimmy Rogers
and Muddy Waters
. Muddy was already an accomplished slide-guitar player, but some of Claude’s technique rubbed off on him as they traded tunings and riffs when they practiced together. They played some club dates with Jimmy and a drummer called ‘Pork Chop’, but Claude had a well-paid day-job as an electrician, which was great for fixing amplifiers and pick-ups, but he was obviously not so committed to all-night gigs: he got the boys their first paid residency, but often did not show up himself. As the others moved up, Claude moved around the towns of Illinois over the next few years, plying his trade and playing in the evenings, and at a residency at Club 99 in Joliet, he picked up the name ‘Blue Smitty’.
‘Date Bait’ has been covered many times, but didn’t even get a release from Chess!
Smitty’s association with Muddy got him some session work at Chess Studios over in Chicago, and he recorded four of his own songs for them in July 1952. ‘Sad Story’ c/w ‘Crying’ were issued as a single, but the company had bigger stars to promote when Little Walter
‘s ‘Juke’ hit the top of the Billboard R&B charts the next month, and nothing more was released. All those original tracks feature Smitty’s confident voice and accomplished guitar lines, and they are frequently included in compilations as fine examples of classic electric Chicago Blues. Smitty’s career did not take off, and although he continued to play around Illinois for many decades, and although he gave some great interviews in Living Blues magazine in the 70s, his talent was never picked up by a record company or Festival promoter. He passed away in Joliet in 2007.
Smitty’s songs are included on many compilations like ‘Drop Down Mama’ and ‘Chess Masters’, and his songs ‘Sad Story’, ‘Crying’, ‘Elgin Movements’ & ‘Date Bait’ are available on Spotify, but watch out for all those other Smittys!
Despite his skills as a performer and songwriter, Claude ‘Blue’ Smitty remains a footnote in the History of the Blues, and even then is often confused with Byther Smith, Doug Smith, ‘Big Bad Smitty’ and others who all used the ‘Smitty’ tag. Perhaps that is, in itself, his memorial: a faint echo of a big talent, hidden in a name.