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DULUTH-The Groove Merchants powered through their Saturday set with a red fedora onstage. Next to it sat a box filled with the ashes of lead singer Big Walter Smith.
"He made me promise I would bring him here today," Smith's wife, Shirley, said. "And he will be on that stage today when they perform."
"This was our baby. Bayfront [Blues festival] was a baby festival. It was just a dream. It was just a big dream," Shirley said.
Shirley, also Walter's manager, received a standing ovation from the thousands of people crowding annual event.
In its 24th year, it's the first time Walter, a bluesman, would not fill his noon time-slot. He died July 24th after being diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer, friend and member of the Groove Merchants Don Vidal said.
"And I think 15 minutes before a gig that he was performing at down in the cities he had a stroke," Vidal said.
"We're dealing with it and its sinking in. It's hard to think that we're never going to hear his voice again. It was such a young voice and vibrant voice," Vidal said.
"We're going to play some of Walt's tunes with Jimi Primetime Smith," Vidal said.
"300 pounds," Jimi Primetime Smith said. "That was his signature song."
"That's one of the songs that we're going to be doing today too. And I'll always remember that too because he was such a big statuesque man. And that's how I remember him," Jimi said.
"And I've loved him from the first minute I met him. And whenever anybody asked me I said 'that's my father' I said 'that's my father in the blues and he's always been a father to me and I've always been a son to him," Jimi said.
Others who knew Big Walter Smith shared similar feelings about the man with the voice of a 30–year–old, but wisdom to mentor more than 200 musicians.
"I'm not grieving my husband today. I'm celebrating the fact that he's at the 24th annual Bayfront Blues Festival. And this is where he wanted to be," Shirley Smith said.
On Sunday August 26 bands, including the Groove Merchants, will hold a Memorial Concert at Toivo's in Grand Rapids, Minnesota to raise money for Big Walter Smith's family.
The entry cost is $10 and it includes a Spaghetti Dinner. The event runs from 2-7 p.m.