Behind the Blues Scene with Shirley B. Smith
Behind the Blues Scene with
Shirley B. Smith of BWS Productions MN
Manager, Booking Agent, Historian for
Big Walter Smith & the Groove Merchants
by Jacquie Maddix
Shirley holding the umbrella for friends at The Groove Merchants Band event.
Five feet, three inches, red hair, quick smile, but don’t think Shirley Schuldt Smith misses anything that happens cause she doesn’t. Even deep in conversation with someone, her eyes are scanning the room, watching everything and everybody. Did all the Groove Merchants make it to the gig on time? Will Teresa be alright at the merchandise table alone? Which bartender is being a jerk to the customers? Her keen eyes pay special attention to the interactions between her band guys, the crowd and the bar staff. The Groovers are expected to talk with fans in between sets, something that works well for both the crowd and the musicians, who get lots of loving attention in return. “The club pays for a class act”, Shirley smiles, “and we’re here to do a class job. We’re here to entertain the people. I always want to give good class.” Her laugh is easy and loose, but the humorous side is quickly replaced by the business woman. “But, I expect that in return from bar owners. I expect them to treat my guys with class.” And with food! “After they play, the band is really hungry. I’ve asked some kitchens to stay open so the band can still order. Sometimes, clubs don’t want to do it, but now that’s a standard courtesy because I want these guys to get fed.” She also wants respect for the band and won’t rebook a club that treats them badly. But this hasn’t been much of a problem for the Groove Merchants, at least not in the last 15 years since Shirley started managing and booking the band. Her day job expertise didn’t prepare her for working in the music industry and husband Walter let her know that. But after working 27 years in the commercial credit and collections business, Shirley was confident: “I don’t care what business you’re in, it’s all about people…and I know people!”
And that’s pretty obvious if you’ve every been partying with Shirley and the band. The Groove Merchants are constantly surrounded by people of all kinds. Some who make it to every gig, some who take their vacations in Minnesota just to party with the band. And then there’s the fans who’ve been around the band longer than half the musicians. It’s like witnessing the migration of some nomadic tribe, seeing fans from all aspects of Shirley and Walter’s life gather at the gigs. There’s relatives, co-workers, former bandmembers, former foster children, neighbors, ex-neighbors, young musicians, old musicians….from Rosalee the librarian to Marty the security guard at Bayfront events, this tribe comes from all over the Midwest to groove with the blues.
But the heart of this collective is Shirley, who takes the time to visit with everyone, remembering specific details of folks’ lives, such as their children’s birthday’s and who graduated from what school and when. The appreciative fans show up for the music and stay because of Shirley’s personal motto, “Class…you get it when you give it.”
Jacquie: Ever regret it Shirley? Ever regret being the one behind the scenes, Walter the one up front?
Shirley: No ’cause we got it all worked out. On stage, he’s in charge. But off stage, their butts are mine! I got into managing the band so Walter wouldn’t have to. His job is to just do the music and let me take care of the rest. He was trying to do everything…booking, managing, singing, working a full time day job. After he collapsed on stage one night, I knew I had to do something to help him. The doctors told him to take some time off from playing, so he was gone from music for a year. When he went back to singing, I was right there with him, to do the business end of things.
Jacquie: I’m gonna put you on the spot. Who’s your favorite local musician?
Shirley: Jimi Smith and the Prime Time Players. They really like to entertain the people. Plus, I feel personally connected to those guys. I’ve been knowing Jimi and Pockets a long time. I’ve know so many of these guys for so long they’ve started calling me Mom. People used to think Jimi was Walter’s son. He might as well be! I tell you what’s really nice is seeing so many of the musicians I grew up with still out there doing it.
Jacquie: I know you met Walter in Minneapolis, but are you from here?
Shirley: From North Minneapolis, then when I was a teenager, we moved to Wayzata. I was at Pete Krogseng’s house when I met Pat Hayes. Pete’s brother was good friends with my brother. I met Jim Novak when I was over there, and Tom Burns, too. That had to be ’61-’62. Those guys were always playing some kinda music. But the first band I hear play professionally was the Trashmen. I was 14 years old. I’ve been loving live music ever since.
Jacquie: Always liked the blues?
Shirley: That’s what I grew up around… blues and rhythm & blues. But, way back in my twenties, I was a waitress in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I got to see Jerry Lee Lewis and George Jones, live. I liked that too. Of the blues guys, though, I have to say I like the Alberts best, King and Collins. What nice men! Walter was friends with both of them close to 40 years. No matter where they were, they always called Walt to talk. But the music that changed my life I heard when I was 15 years old. I was at the Twilight Lounge in Cedar Rapids, Iowa watching…you guessed it… Big Walter Smith. 10 years after that, I saw him again at Papa Joe’s Supper Club in North Minneapolis. I was there so much, they gave me a job as a waitress!(That easy laugh again)
Jacquie: You watch everything, Shirley! What are you looking for?
Shirley: I guess it’s more what I hope I don’t see. My BS detector works real good. I like being in win-win situations and usually if there’s some BS involved, I know somebody is gonna get screwed. So I avoid all that. That’s why I like working with contracts, I like playing clubs we’ve worked with for years. Everything’s right there. And everybody knows what to expect, both the club and the band.
Jacquie: But that’s not what you’re watching the crowd for??
Shirley B. Smith with photographer Tom Asp at Bayfront Bluesfest
Shirley: Looking out there, you know, more and more I see the kids of our fans coming out to the gigs. It makes me feel good that we’re turning on another generation of blues fans. But at the same time, it makes me realize how long I been doing this, how long Walter’s been at it. You know Prince used to come jam with us at the Cozy in Minneapolis. That had to be the early ’70’s. The band got mad at him for hogging the stage. He was always up there ’cause he could play all the instruments. I’ve been doing this 15 years but I’m still a baby in the business. I learn new stuff every day. I’m still paying my dues.
Jacquie: Who are all these people that go with you guys everywhere?
Shirley: They’re fans, friends, people we’ve touched in some way. You can just feel the love comin’ off ’em. The music does it. I swear to God, Jacquie, music really connects people. I take Walter back to New Foundland to visit my older relatives and they just love the blues up there. I don’t think anything is more universal. I like to say music is the international language of love.
Jacquie: The folks come out to dance to Walter’s music, but you get treated like a star too. Everyone wants to be in your space. You must send out healing vibes or something.
Shirley: I just know a lot of people. Lots of different people! I looked around one day there were all these people in my life. Some from the music world, some from my day job, some that never even met each other. There used to be a line between my personal friends and the people I do business with, but that line’s gone now. (Big laugh this time) Some of them I’ve been friends with for more than 20-30 years, like Joel Johnson. Tell you the truth, I just love people!
Jacquie: This agent business has to be tough on you as a woman. How do you get their respect?
Shirley: First I had to get my husband’s respect, then the band’s. After that, the rest was easier cause I knew Walter would support me. But respect is something you have to keep working at. We keep giving good music and we keep getting rebooked, so I guess something is going right!
Jacquie: What else is going right for the Groove Merchants?
Shirley B. Smith with KoKo Taylor
Shirley: Maybe some festivals next year in Amsterdam and Italy. And of course, we’ll be on the blues cruise this December. I always look forward to that. I get to hob-nob with my favorite blues stars, cruise the waterways and visit with good company. Wish everything could be that simple!
Interview By Jacquie ‘LadyJ Griot’ Maddix
KFAI Radio Mpls/St. Paul
This review is copyright © 2000 by Jacquie Maddix, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.
Photography copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, all rights reserved.