April 12, 2017 – Barry “Frosty” Smith (Soulhat/Sweathog) was born Barry Eugene Smith on March 20, 1946 in Bellingham, Washington.
Smith was raised in the California Bay Area, where he proved a tap dancing prodigy. He was a professional tap dancer from age 3 to 12. Obviously rhythm was part of him. He received schooling in classical piano before taking to the drum kit, due to their natural feel. After playing in dive clubs and strip bars in the San Francisco – San José area, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 70s where he got his first big break, as drummer for organist Lee Michaels with whom he toured nationally and internationally. On Michaels’ records, Smith billed himself as Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost, “to be sure I’d be seen on album covers,” he said in a 1991 American-Statesman interview. The “Frosty” nickname grew from that.
While in LA, he also became a member of Sweathog, reuniting with David Johnson, whom he played with in San José in a band called “The Persuaders”. Sweathog scored a top-40 hit with the song “Hallelujah” in 1971 and released two albums on CBS Records. Famous talent agent Frank Barsalona signed Sweathog to the Premier Talent Agency and they became a top opening act for Black Sabbath, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The J. Geils Band, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Grand Funk Railroad and others.
By 1973 Frosty started recording and touring with Parliament/Funkadelic, Rare Earth, Sly & the Family Stone and the Steve Miller Blues Band, among others.
From almost as far back as he can remember, his existence was defined by rhythm. He was a professional tap dancer from the ages of 3 through 12, and a student of classical piano who turned to drums because it came so naturally. After an apprenticeship in the nightclubs and strip bars of San Francisco, he relocated to Los Angeles with modest aspirations.
“All I wanted to do was play in better clubs that were cleaner,” he said with a laugh. “I figured they must have bigger, cleaner places, and then eventually I’d get a job in Vegas.”
Instead, he got a job with organist Lee Michaels, who had recently released a debut album as a one-man band and was looking to add a drummer. Michaels was impressed with the way Smith played, though not with the way he looked.
“He was this hippy-dippy guy with long hair, and at the time I was very clean-cut, a jazz/R&B kind of guy with cuff links,” said Smith. “And this guy said, ‘Will you let your hair grow?’ That was basically our introduction.”
Smith remembers Michaels as a guy who “could drill holes in cement with that organ,” though Frosty was equally responsible for the duo’s heavy sound. … Live performances left fans raving about the drummer. It was with Michaels that Smith began billing himself as Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost, inevitably shortened to Frosty.
“I wanted to do something to be sure I’d be seen on album covers,” he explained. “Lee Michaels’ name was short, and everybody knew who he was, so I made my name immensely long. It took up a liner note, just my name.”
During 10 years in Los Angeles, Smith felt that he “learned some things about music but mostly learned the music business there.” After amassing his various recording and performing credentials, he settled into the sort of drum-for-hire work that so often pays the bills for professional musicians. He would network at the city’s Studio Instrument Rentals, a rehearsal space where touring performers would hire musicians who wanted to hit the road, and busy himself during the day with session and jingles work.
“I’d get up early in the morning and play drum rolls for salad oil,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the Van Gogh syndrome or not, but I got to the point where playing for cheese parts just wasn’t very interesting for me.”
After hooking up with Delbert McClinton in Los Angeles (where Frosty was drumming in a band with Glen Clark, McClinton’s former partner in Delbert and Glen), Smith wearied of returning to California whenever he had a week’s break from the road, so he relocated to Austin.
“I started staying here, going out nights, and, man, the local scene was just wonderful,” he said. “When I came to Austin, I was real impressed with the sharing that was going on.”
Frosty arrived in Austin in the early 1980s and never left, as he set about making himself a household name in the Live Music Capital. He became ubiquitous, playing with bands at local hotspots such as Antone’s, La Zona Rosa, and the Continental Club. He recorded one album with McClinton, Plain From the Heart, in 1981. From there, the list of artists with whom he recorded and performed became the stuff of legend.
He played blues, rock, country, and more, with dozens of artists including Junior Brown, the Texas Tornadoes, Marcia Ball, Candye Kane, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Long John Hunter, Jimmy Vaughan, Lonnie Brooks, and Phillip Walker. He is, perhaps, most famous for his work with Soulhat, with whom he recorded five albums, and hit the Billboard charts with the Top 40 single, “Bonecrusher.”
As his career progressed, Smith became a tasteful and dexterous shepherd of the groove. Such is the promise of Austin that you could witness a world-class drummer playing in a small club for $5 any week. In later years, he frequently played the Continental Club Gallery in the trio of B3 organist Mike Flanigin.
“He took drumming to the level where it was art and that’s so rare,” says Flanigin, who says that having Frosty in his combo gave him instant credibility as an emerging musician. “On top of that, he was such an individual in how he expressed himself, which is what we all strive for as musicians.”
Flanigan, who lived by the motto “when in doubt, give Frosty a solo,” says he often saw famous drummers come into the tiny club just to sit and watch Smith play. All were dazzled by his speed and skill.
“He had all the things a drummer wants to have,” furthers Flanigin. “First and foremost, he was a great timekeeper, which seems simple on the surface, but it’s not. When Frosty started the song it would end at the same tempo, even if the song was 10 minutes and had a long drum solo. He didn’t pick the tempo up. “That’s super rare.”
“His best quality was that he was a great musician in the sense he always listened to what others were playing and he responded. He played in so many different settings with so many different kinds of people and he always responded to what they were doing, and that’s why people loved him. He didn’t just drum.
“He made music.”
Glen Clark, McClinton’s former partner in the duo Delbert & Glen, offered this colorful assessment of Smith: “There was a time when his dress code was pajamas. He played golf with just a putter. When he got behind a drum kit, you felt real lucky to be playing with him. His pocket was inescapable. He was a gigantic influence in my life and I’m so blessed to have known him.”
Smith’s serious health problems dated back to at least 2002, when he suffered congestive heart failure and several local benefit shows were held on his behalf. But he returned and continued to be active locally for more than a decade, most recently performing regularly with B3 organ player Mike Flanigin and guitar great Jimmie Vaughan.
Smith recovered enough from his 2015 ailments to play occasional Tex Thomas gigs, until recently. “We called him every time to come play, but the last six months he declined,” Levin said. Betty Carlton, Smith’s girlfriend of three years, said Thursday that despite therecent stroke and heart events, “he was not suffering. He would spend maybe a couple of months recuperating after those events, and then he lived a normal life.”
Barry “Frosty” Smith died after a long illness from a stroke and a subsequent heart attack on April 12, 2017, at the age of 71.