The bandleader for the Groove Merchants, 82, schooled hundreds of musicians and helped spark Duluth's Bayfront festival.
He inspired Duluth's Bayfront Blues Fest and schooled an untold number of musicians, including a teenage Prince on a few occasions. Perhaps the biggest piece of blues singer Big Walter Smith's legacy, however, was simply his mainstay presence. He arrived from Kansas City in 1970 for a house gig that ran six nights a week, and he kept up that kind of workman schedule throughout the Midwest for 42 years.
Smith, 82, died Tuesday at home in north Minneapolis from pancreatic cancer and a stroke. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer about two months ago but -- true to form -- continued performing until suffering a stroke at a show in Marine-on-St.-Croix in late June. Since then, he received an outpouring of love from the scene, his wife and manager, Shirley Smith, said.
"We've had a houseful of musicians in recent days, all of whom came to pay their respects and thanked Walter for his integrity and professionalism," she said.
Among them was Scott Graves, longtime guitarist in Smith's backing band, the Groove Merchants, who called Walter "a rock of a performer." Per Smith's wishes, the Groove Merchants have maintained gigs in his absence and will continue to, with his friend Jimi "Primetime" Smith filling in. That includes an Aug. 19 tribute/fundraiser at Wilebski's Blues Saloon in St. Paul, plus an Aug. 11 slot at the Bayfront Fest. Smith is the only act booked for each of the event's 24 years.
"He's really the big reason the festival ever came to be," said Bayfront founder Chris Mackey, who used to book Smith at the Harbor Inn's bar in Duluth and saw his popularity rise, planting a seed for the fest. He said Smith usually opened the Saturday lineup at noon: "He was a good wake-up call, and he would get a lot of people to come out early."
With a voice that could be Big Joe Turner rough or Johnnie Taylor smooth, Smith often wore suits over his 300-pound frame and always maintained a professional demeanor at shows, including limiting his band's alcohol intake. By day, he ran an auto body shop, earning him such nicknames as "The Tow-Truck-Driving Bluesman." Said fellow blues vet Paul Metsa, "He had such great pipes, and was a very well-respected bandleader."
A native of Tulsa, Okla., Smith was wooed to Minneapolis for that nightly gig at Papa Joe's Northern Supper Club. Some other venues he frequented early on included the Riverview Supper Club and the Cozy Bar, which is where a young Prince snuck in to join him onstage in the mid-1970s. Jonny Lang also jammed with him, and Hoopsnakes leader Bruce McCabe is one of the countless musicians to have played in his band.
"Walter was the kind of genuine guy whom everybody trusted and stayed friends with -- which is a rarity in this business," said Butanes leader Curtis Obeda, who backed Smith before striking out for Chicago with a close friend of Smith, famed bluesman Albert Collins. "He taught probably a couple hundred people how to play the blues in this town."
The one thing that Smith was not good at, Obeda said, was handling the business side of being a bandleader. "That's where Shirley came in. They made a great team."
Smith had two sons and a stepdaughter from before his marriage to Shirley, who said he raised her two daughters "like his own." They have nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The family has set a memorial service for Aug. 5, 4-7 p.m., at Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapel, 5125 W. Broadway Av., Crystal.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658