Interview By Karl Bremer
Introduction and Interview
By Karl Bremer
Reprinted with permission of author and Living Blues
Copyright © 1997-2000 Living Blues · All Rights Reserved
Big Walter Smith has personified the blues in Minneapolis and St. Paul for over 25 years. His 350-pound presence and velveteen voice have graced almost every blues and R&B stage in the Twin Cities at one time or another, and he has been a mainstay of the popular Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth since its inaugural year in 1989. He is so popular in Duluth that the mayor proclaimed August 8, 1997, to be “Big Walter Smith Day” in the city. Smith has also been featured at other regional festivals, including the Fargo [N.D.] Blues Fest, Minnesota Blues Fest in New Ulm, and Blues on the Range in Chisholm.
Smith moved to Minneapolis in 1970, but his musical career began long before he landed in Minnesota. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1930, Smith got his start in show business in the 1950s in a rather unlikely role: master of ceremonies for an Oklahoma City vaudeville show featuring female impersonators. Years later Smith assisted a then-struggling Albert Collins in Kansas City, becoming the guitarist’s lifelong friend. He also worked parties with Albert King during the ’60s and has shared stages with B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, whom Smith cites as one of his biggest early influences.
Most of the blues musicians in the Twin Cities have played with Smith, and most hold him in the highest regard. He formed his band, the Groove Merchants, in 1985; the current linep includes guitarist Scott Graves, keyboardist Paul Wigen, drummer Tom McShane, trumpeter Arthur “Jomo Tar-V” Branscomb, saxophonist Ruston Reynolds, trombonist Matt Franko, and bassist Donnell “Papa D” Woodson.
Smith and the Groove Merchants recorded Live from the Whiskey (a cassette-only release) at Minneapolis’ Whiskey Junction nightclub in 1987. In 1990, Smith released the Grammy-nominated Brother to the Blues (BWS 402), his tribute to three lost blues 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 and the Mellow Fellows). Smith just released a new album, Midnight Express.
Minnesota’s Brother to the Blues talks about Albert Collins, a bar shoot-out and his ignominious start as a blues singer . . .
Back in the early ’50s in Oklahoma City, a friend of mine was in a band and there were these people putting this female impersonator show together. They wanted to hire his band. But they also needed an emcee, and nobody in the band could emcee. So he told me, “Man, you’re pretty good at announcing acts,” because I was doing it for them when they were just amateurs. So I told him I’d do it and if they hire me, I’ll take the job. They paid me good money too: $35 a night. We traveled all over the Midwest with this show. Then somebody suggested that I sing instead of talking all the time. So I tried a few numbers and that was the beginning of my career. And I went from there to bands.
When I first started out, when I left this female impersonator show, got home and got with another band, I wasn’t really hip that the singer and the band was one and the same, see. So this guy L.V. Branch, a former Jimmy Reed sideman, took me into his band. I think I worked with him for about three months and every time we’d do a gig he’d tell me, “The man only paid me enough money to pay the band.” He never paid me, you know. So we was working at this one bar and the bar owner come to like me. So finally I just didn’t go to the gig. I stayed home. Then I got a phone call and the man said, “You gonna show up for the gig?” And I said, “No . . . . I’m tired of workin’ and not gettin’ paid. I been singin’ about two and a half, three months and I ain’t got no money yet.”
Big Walter Smith jams with Jonny Lang
at Hoopsnakes Reunion
Photo Copyright © 1997-2000 Lori Gradou
I said, “If he’s only makin’ just enough to pay the band, why doesn’t just the band play and make the money?” He admitted that the club owner wouldn’t book the band if I didn’t sing, so I talked to the club owner and he agreed to pay me — not Branch — the band’s money. So I jumped in my car and booked out there and I did the night and got done playin’, the owner gave me the money, the $350, and I put it in my pocket. So the guy in the band comes up to me and says, “The man says he paid you.” And I said, “He did.” He says, “Where’s our part?” And I says, “The man told me he only made enough to pay the singer, not the band.” And he didn’t say nothin’. He knew that was the payback. I kept working with the band, but I kept collecting the money too. I paid everybody off then.
It could get kind of rough. I remember one incident, it happened in Oklahoma City. I was singing in a club. Now, it was ironic because there was this one girl. We had separated and she had this other guy. And then I started messin’ around with this other girl and we separated. Then they became friends and everywhere I played they’d follow me around. Then their old men would drop in. I was singing — I used to sing and I sometimes sing that way now — with my eyes closed. One of their guys walked up and decided they was going to take care of me that day for no reason at all. So one of those guys came up and hit me right in the mouth when I was singin’ Ray Charles’ What’d I Say?. And the other one, when I started to try and fight him, cut me right on the hand. I was still working for this L.V. Branch and I knew he always carried a pistol on him. So I jerked his coat open and got that gun and shot the one who cut me. And I was maybe 20 yards away and emptied that gun at the other one and missed him. So I said the good Lord was in my corner that night and just didn’t let me kill those people.
‘Albert [Collins] was a humble guy.
He showed me a lot about not worrying about having a big hit
— being humble and being satisfied with what you got,
but never stop trying to reach your goals.’
— BIG WALTER SMITH
I started working for M.L. Dunn Promotions in Oklahoma in the early ’60s, opening for B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and others on the circuit. I moved to Iowa for three or four years and then worked the East Coast around New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia for about eight years as Deacon Smith and the Disciples. Then I moved back to the Midwest, back to Kansas City. I had a band called Big Walter Smith’s Blues Revue. That’s when I came into contact with Albert Collins and Albert King and we worked some shows together. Now, with Albert King we used to do a lot of cabaret parties in Kansas City, and the lady that booked those cabaret parties was a big fan of his. They’d always have two bands and she started liking my band too, so she’d book us both on those cabaret parties. That’s how I met Albert King and we stayed friends ever since. Albert Collins, he was a struggling musician at the time. Got hooked up with shyster promoters that beat him out of his money. So I sort of took him under my wing. He worked for me for about six months or so and then Little Milton came along and had a gig for him in California . . . . Albert was a humble guy. He showed me a lot about not worrying about having a big hit, being humble and being satisfied with what you got, but never stop trying to reach your goals.
Antares in 1971
Left to right: BIG WALTER SMITH (vocals), HYE POCKETS ROBERTSON (drums),
JOE SHEROHMAN (bass), DAMON LEE (lead guitar, vocals)
A friend of mine, Damon “Sonny Boy” Lee, contacted me in Kansas City in 1970 and asked me to sing in his band in Minneapolis. We worked like 19 months at a place called Papa Joe’s Northern Supper Club. This was a band called Antares. Then I went back on the road for a while. I worked with a band called Crossroads. And then I had the Big Walter Smith Blues Revue again. Then I had a band called Brass Magic. That was a nine-piece group — had a four-piece horn section. That was a real bad band. My philosophy is this: you don’t have to be a great musician. Just working with great musicians, you’ll come up to their standards. It’ll gel. You can take a mediocre musician and make him a great musician just by blending with the other guys . . . . I could go right through this town and come up with a band — I mean a big band, not a little band — a big R&B band out of this town here that I would compete with anybody in the world. They got some hellfire musicians here that people don’t know nothin’ about. Just because they can’t get the break to play, or they’re playin’ but you see it’s a waste of talent because the public don’t support ’em.
B.B. KING and BIG WALTER SMITH
flanked by a former incarnation
of The Groove Merchants.
We’re not making big money, but we get a full house every place we play. The Twin Cities blues market is pretty good — it’s really good. But it doesn’t get the overall publicity that it should get locally. [We play] all over the Twin Cities and Minnesota and some in Wisconsin. We don’t have what you call a home base club. But we get great response from quite a few every time we play there — Mr. D’s in Duluth, Jackpine Junction in Grand Rapids, Brewbaker’s in North St. Paul. We always do good at Whiskey Junction [in Minneapolis] . . . I’d like to be able to tour 60, 90 days a year. The irons are in the fire.