As welcoming as a favourite sweater, as inviting as a well-worn pair of slippers, Big Walter Smith is among the warmest and most congenial of entertainers. The fact that he and his tightly-knit Groove Merchants are the only act to have performed at all eight Thunder Bay Blues Festivals and all twenty Bayfront Blues Festivals in Duluth, Minnesota is ample proof that they like the music they love easily transcend borders. And, if popularity can be gauged by the sight of hundreds of fans rising spontaneously to their feet, cheering loudly and clapping their hands when he walks on stage, then Smith is the acknowledged Chairman of the Board.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Kansas City, Smith cites his friendship with Albert Collins and the singing of Bobby “Blue” Bland and B. B. King as his biggest musical influences. While those inspirations may have drawn Smith into the sphere of blues music’s irresistible gravitational pull, his voice has a honey sweet, velvet smooth timber that lends itself very well to rhythm and blues. He has been a mainstay of the Twin Cities’ music scene ever since he moved to Minneapolis/St Paul in 1970. Minnesota’s affable elder statesman of the blues, Smith was the vocalist in many local groups before forming the Groove Merchants in 1985.
Big Walter Smith and the Groove Merchants have become the personification of the blues in Minnesota winning virtually every music award that the state has to offer. In 1998, Smith made music history when he became the first blues musician to be inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. Even politicians have sung his praises on more than one occasion. The Groove Merchants have also embarked on the high seas performing on blues cruises to spread the music’s message across the Atlantic.
The band’s 1990 release Brother to the Blues received a Grammy Award nomination for Blues Recording of the Year. That level of recording excellence has continued with the release of the widely acclaimed Midnight Express and Groovin’ (Live). Don’t leave the festival grounds without a copy of their latest release Running Out of Time.
The current edition of the Groove Merchants is lead by the cat-quick guitar playing and back up vocals of Scotty Graves, the brassy exhilaration of the Hi-Steppin’ horn section featuring Jim Kogl (tenor saxophone) and Dan Eikmeier (trumpet) and the dancing keyboards of Tim Wick. No matter how sharp the turn, count on Brad Pelkey (bass) and Patrick Hulme (drums) to keep the proceedings firmly on the rails. Fronting the band is the Ambassador to the Blues, Big Walter Smith and his smooth, soaring, mellifluous vocals.
More than musicians, Big Walter Smith & the Groove Merchants are friends. Things just wouldn’t be the same without them!