Big Walter Smith | Minnesota Blues Musician

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.

Big Walter Smith | Minnesota Blues Music

Big Walter Smith’s Barstool – Keepin’ the Blues Alive!

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.

Big Walter Smith and Shirley Smith

Big Walter Smith with wife Shirley Smith

“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.~Star & Tribune Obituary 7/24/2012

Big Walter Smith’s Biography

BigWalter Smith celebrates life after achieving 55 years as a lead vocalist and band leader in the music business. Blues, R&B, soul, rock, country and reggae is what he sings about these days.

Big Walter Smith is Minnesota’s most honored and recognized Bluesman. In Minneapolis, the legendary “Big Man of the Blues” has been a fixture in the Midwest’s blues scene since 1970. His 300 pound presence and velveteen voice have graced nearly every blues and R&B stage in the Midwest, as well as the finest concert halls, casinos and festivals.

Big Walter has been a mainstay at the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth since its inception in 1988. He is so popular in Duluth that the Mayor proclaimed August 8, 1997 to be “Big Walter Smith Day” in the city.

There’s hardly a Minnesota music award that hasn’t been bestowed upon Big Walter Smith both individually and with his band, The Groove Merchants. The Twin Cities Blues News Best Blues Band (1997). Minnesota Blues Society Horn Band (1995). Minnesota Blues Society Male Vocalist (1989). Minnesota’s Black Music Award R&B Horn Band (1987, 1988). Minnesota Blues Society Recognition Award (1988). Minnesota’s Black Music Award Male Vocalist (1983, 1984, 1986, 1987).

He was featured in Living Blues Magazine in 1997. He has been honored by the State of Minnesota for bringing the blues to Minnesota.

Big Walter made history when he became the first blues musician inducted into the Minnesota’s Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, MN in 1998. In June 2005 the City of Minneapolis’ Mayor, R.T. Rybak, proclaimed a Big Walter Smith Day.

In 2005 Walter was given an award for 50 years in the music business by the staff of the Dug Out Bar. That same year he was also inducted into the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of fame.

Big Walter’s music career began long before he landed in Minnesota. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1930. He moved to Kansas City, MO. where he met and helped a struggling Albert Collins becoming a life-long friend. He also worked parties with Albert King during the 1960s becoming a life-long friend with him also. He has shared stages with his other favorite’s B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, whom Big Walter cites as his chief early influences.

Big Walter moved to Minneapolis in 1970 at the invitation of his friend and past band mate Damon Lee. He met his wife and band manager, Shirley, two months later and they’ve been together ever since. Big Walter sang in Damon’s band The Antares for nearly two years at Papa Joe’s Northern Supper Club in Minneapolis. Big Walter has had several other bands, Cross Roads, Big Walter Smith’s Blues revue, and Brass Magic, before settling on the Groove Merchants in 1985.

The current lineup includes long time guitarist Scott Graves, keyboardist Tim Wick, drummer Patrick Hulme, bassist Chris Johnson, Trumpeter Dan Eikmeier and saxophonist Jim Kogl.

Most of the blues musicians in the Twin Cities have played with Big Walter in the past 37 years and hold him in the highest regard.

Big Walter’s first recording was recorded live at the Whiskey Junction, Big Storm Comin’ in 1987. In 1994 he released the Grammy-nominated Brother To The Blues, his tribute to three brothers and friends (Albert Collins, Albert King and Larry “Big Twist” Nolan). The Groove Merchants have been compared to the late Nolan’s group, Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows. Midnight Express was released in 1998, followed by Groovin’ in 2001. Big Walter’s latest release, Running Out Of Time and his re-release of Big Storm Comin’ is out and doing fine for the big man of the blues. Who some say when it comes to “Blues” Big Walter Smith is the Chairman of the Board.

This biography is Copyright © 2000 by Karl Bremer & Blues On Stage. All rights reserved

Big Walter Smith day proclaimed by the of Minneapolis, presented to Walter June 11, 2005 at Peavy Plaza.

Big Walter Smith Day | June 11 2005


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s