by Bill Dahl
As his 80th birthday nears (June 16th), Smiley Tillmon ranks with Chicago’s busiest bluesmen. The veteran guitarist and his trusty band (guitarist Kate Moss, bassist Tom Rezetko, and drummer George Baumann) probably play more gigs on a weekly basis than any other blues combo in town, and they’ve been doing it for years — delighting fans in the heart of the Windy City as well as every suburb in the outlying areas with their immediately accessible set list of beloved blues classics. Smiley’s a guaranteed good time, often indulging in comic patter between tunes. But when he tears into a typically inventive guitar solo, he’s definitely all business.
Smiley’s bio reads like that of no other Chicago blues guitarist. Born Moses Tillmon in rural Jefferson County, Georgia, he lived there for his first ten years on the planet before his mother moved the family to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That’s where he started getting into music. “I loved to sing,” says Smiley. “My mom was a pretty good piano player. I always wanted to play. So I finally went to the pawn shop and bought a guitar for ten dollars and bought a little chord book to try to figure out what to do. Eventually things started to happen for me.”
As a young man, Tillmon saw Guitar Slim, B.B. King, the Midnighters, the “5” Royales, Bobby Bland, and Little Willie John perform at the Palms of Hallandale, located midway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. By 1960, Tillmon was playing guitar for singer Billy Miranda and appearing on Billy’s Miami-cut rocker “Run Rose” for Chicago’s Checker Records.
A major departure in Tillmon’s background from the Chicago blues norm was his early exposure to calypso music, which was then rampant around Miami. He joined calypso singer Sammy Ambrose’s band, the Afro-Beats, touring as far north as Montreal and playing on Sammy’s early ‘60s single “The Canadian Twist.” When the Afro-Beats broke up in 1962, Smiley moved to Chicago and began to make a name for himself on the competitive South Side blues circuit. “I ran into guys like Jimmy Johnson, Jody Williams, Lefty Dizz, Lonnie Brooks—he was Guitar Jr. then,” he says. “I learned from those guys. They helped me out.”
While working with Singing Sam and His Sparks in 1962, Smiley acquired his lifelong nickname. “We were on the bandstand, and everybody used to call me Moses. And I like to have fun and laugh. He said, ‘I ain’t gonna call you Moses. I’m gonna call you Smiley!’” The happy-go-lucky Tillmon gigged during the mid-‘60s with keyboardist Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who had cut the classic “Red Hot” a decade earlier. Smiley’s crisp lead guitar was overdubbed on “A Dancin’ Whippersnapper,” one of Emerson’s mid-‘60s singles on Billy’s own Tarpon label.
The devoted family man quit playing full-time in 1977, working a day job for a school district for three decades. Once he hit retirement age, Smiley grabbed his guitar and picked up right where he left off, now as a leader. Meeting Rezetko in 2007 solidified his commitment. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, man, let’s see if we can take this thing to another level!’” says Smiley. “It was time to get back on the trail. Things have been going well since then, since I hooked up with Tom. He’s the best!” Moss’ slashing Freddie King/Magic Sam-influenced leads contrast with Smiley’s fluid fretwork. “She just put another level on it,” notes Tillmon. “She’s such a great player.” Baumann’s rock-solid traps round out the very solid unit.
“I’m full speed ahead trying to play music now,” says Smiley Tillmon, one of the last Chicago bluesmen still active from the 1960s when blues provided a nightly soundtrack at countless South Side taverns. You can bet he’ll have a smile on his face when he’s onstage.
“That’s my whole attitude,” he says. “To play and have fun!”
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