Smokey Wilson remains one of America's most precious and irreplaceable treasures, the "Bluesman". Born in Mississippi in 1936, Robert Lee "Smokey" Wilson learned the blues at the feet of legends Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King.
As a child, Smokey's burning desire to play the blues had to be satisfied on a homemade broom handle and bailing wire guitar until his mother bought him his first acoustic at thirteen. He would soon be known as "Mississippi Smokey" in and around his hometown of Glen Allan. Nearby Greenville was a hotbed of blues activity and spawned a new generation of bluesmen that carry on the tradition today. Artists such as Little Milton, Frank Frost, Sam Carr, Big Jack Johnson, along with Smokey, were nurtured in the juke joints around Greenville. Smokey played drums and bass in his older brother's band until he could outplay his sibling on guitar. The band was then renamed "Little Robert and the Soul Searchers" and toured Southern juke joints with Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes on harmonica.
After the death of his mother in 1970, Smokey went west to Los Angeles where the blues scene was still burgeoning. He soon opened the Pioneer Club just outside Watts and Smokey recalls with pride that he kept it packed for twenty years. Regularly featured guests included Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Shakey Jake, Big Mama Thornton, Percy Mayfield, Johnny Dyer, Albert Collins, and George "Harmonica" Smith. The Pioneer Club also provided a proving ground for many young, aspiring blues artists such as Rod Piazza, William Clarke and Hollywood Fats.
The association with Rod Piazza led to a recording contract with the local Murray Brothers label, which released an LP entitled 88th Street Blues in 1983. That album was re-issued on CD, with three previously unreleased tracks, on Blind Pig. Produced by Rod Piazza, it features Smokey's blistering blues and includes Piazza on harmonica, Hollywood Fats on rhythm guitar and Honey Piazza on piano.
Smokey is difficult if not impossible to categorize. Possessor of a powerful voice, he can bellow like Wolf or cry sweetly like B.B. King. Smokey's guitar playing is equally diverse as he romps through the stylings of Elmore James and Jimmy Reed (which Smokey calls "countryfied blues") one song and then polished urban blues the next. He also digs into the soulful side a la Z.Z. Hill and Tyrone Davis, which was extremely popular with the patrons of the Pioneer Club. Smokey's singing and playing bear the influences of these greats, not by impersonation, but by the fact that Smokey is the genuine article.
Unfortunately, Smokey's years of success at the Pioneer Club did very little for his reputation outside the West Coast. Running and performing at the club made it impossible to tour extensively and gain the exposure and accolades due an artist of his talent. However, he was able to remove himself from the club long enough to help start the Long Beach Blues Festival and be featured in the internationally televised PBS special, "Three Generation of Blues," with Robert Cray and John Lee Hooker. With the recent release of a pair of albums on the Bullseye label, Smokey has begun to receive his long overdue recognition as a blues power. Moreover, Smokey's congenial and gregarious nature make him a natural for film and television projects. He has appeared in numerous commercials, UPN's "The Watcher," and FOX's "Divas" and even in a music video by R&B star Babyface.
Postscript: Smokey passed away on September 8, 2015.