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Big Walter Smith: Bringing the blues north

  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 11:02 PM

A Twin Cities blues mainstay, singer Big Walter Smith, 82, schooled countless musicians -- from Prince to prodigies yet to emerge. He sparked two festivals along the North Shore.

Even the wooden box holding his ashes looked big.

They brought it onstage during Duluth's Bayfront Blues Festival in August and set it on a table, next to his red fedora hat and lonely stool.

Big Walter Smith always had a looming presence onstage, even in the shadow of the Lift Bridge, and this was no exception.

He was the impetus for the largest annual blues gathering in Minnesota, Bayfront founder Chris Mackey says. A tow-truck driver by day, the bluesman did not balk at driving to Duluth for a good gig. Heck, that's what brought him to Minneapolis from Kansas City in 1970: Papa Joe's Northern Supper Club wanted him six nights a week.

When Smith's Duluth shows started packing 'em in years later, Mackey built a whole weekend around the hard-bellowing, 300-pound singer. Walter and the Groove Merchants opened the Saturday lineup. Always.

"A good wake-up call," Mackey said.

His wife and handler of 40 years, Shirley Smith, took him up to the Thunder Bay Blues Festival just a month before Bayfront this year. Everyone sang him happy birthday, but recognized the cancer was winning. At Bayfront, all they could do was honor him posthumously. Did they ever.

"A gazillion people" signed a memorial banner, Shirley says. The Groove Merchants played their regular time slot with one of their many notable alums, Jimi "Primetime" Smith, filling in. Jimi choked up singing Howlin' Wolf's "300 Pounds of Joy," an ode to the big boys.

During Walter's signature song, "The Blues Is All Right," Shirley says her big boy whispered in her ear. The fans, unsure if it was a funeral or a festival, were all seated. "Get up," Walter told her. It turned to yelling. "You can't let them sit during this song!"

Shirley started dancing. The crowd followed. "Suddenly, a couple thousand of them all jammed to the front of the stage," she now marveled.

A somber event turned celebration. It wasn't a miracle. It was simply the blues.

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

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