[This article has been updated with quotes and additional detail.]
Drummer Barry “Frosty” Smith, who rose to prominence in California in the 1970s and became deeply connected with dozens of Austin musicians after moving here in the early 1980s, died at home Wednesday evening after a long illness. He was 71.
Smith had been mostly unable to perform since suffering a heart attack, stroke and pneumonia in 2015, prompting friends and fans to contribute more than $25,000 in a crowdfunding effort for his medical care.
Born March 20, 1946, in Bellingham, Wash., Smith was raised in the Bay Area and also worked extensively in Los Angeles before relocating to Austin. He played on many of Austin’s biggest rock, country and blues records of the 1980s and ’90s, for artists including Alejandro Escovedo, Junior Brown, Roky Erickson, Butch Hancock, Marcia Ball, Tex Thomas, Doug Sahm & the Texas Mavericks, Toni Price, Guy Forsyth and Omar & the Howlers, among dozens of others. And he was omnipresent around town, performing with bands at Antone’s, the Continental Club, the Saxon Pub, La Zona Rosa and other top local venues.
Perhaps his most high-profile role in Austin was as the drummer for Soulhat, in which he served as a guiding force of experience to young up-and-comers Billy Cassis, Kevin McKinney and Brian Walsh. The band got a major-label deal with Epic Records in the mid-’90s and had a minor hit with the song “Bonecrusher.”
“I’ve played with a bunch of great drummers, and he’s the most powerful, hardest-hitting dude I ever played with,” McKinney said Thursday.
Austin musician and producer Danny Levin echoed that sentiment. “There are a lot of great drummers in Austin, but Frosty was the best drummer I ever played with,” said Levin, who first met Smith around 1984 at Hut’s Hamburgers. Levin played a weekly show there with Tex Thomas & the Danglin’ Wranglers, and Smith soon became the group’s drummer.
“I learned more about music from playing with Frosty than from anybody else,” Levin said. “His understanding of rhythm, and his ability to translate that into what his hands and feet could do, was genius-level phenomenal.”
Smith already had built quite a resume before moving to Austin. Playing with Bay Area bands in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he accompanied soulful organ player Lee Michaels on a couple of albums and was a member of Sweathog, which had a top-40 hit with the song “Hallelujah” in 1971.
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. Evidence of Smith’s drumming talent can be seen on YouTube in a 1970 live video for the song “No Part of It” that features just Michaels and Smith as a duo.
Smith later moved to Los Angeles, touring and/or recording with the likes of Rare Earth, Sly & the Family Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic. An extended stint with Fort Worth-raised roots-rock great Delbert McClinton helped lead him to Texas.
In a 1991 feature story, former American-Statesman music writer Don McLeese wrote at length about Smith’s early history:
From almost as far back as he can remember, his existence was defined by rhythm. Raised in the Bay Area, 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.”
Though Smith still goes by Frosty (the Barthlomew Eugene affectation faded long ago), he began using his real name after the persona that he’d invented began taking over his life. “Barry Smith is something I did to recognize myself,” he said. “I was doing drugs and other stuff, and getting lost within the framework. Yes, I am Barry Smith, and I used to hide from that, ’cause I didn’t like it, and I created this other character.”
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 goes on. Right now, I’m receiving an education here in Austin.”
On social media Thursday, his fellow musicians returned the favor, praising how much they had learned from him. Guitarist Eve Monsees remembered being a teenager watching Smith play a song by the Meters during a Blue Monday gig at Antone’s. “I literally had tears in my eyes I was so moved by the drums,” she recalled. “It was wild and funky and I couldn’t even comprehend how someone could play like that.”
Rocker AJ Vallejo called Smith “the first Austin drummer I fell in love with when I moved here.” Austin blues-jazz historian Harold McMillan, marveling at a video clip from Smith’s youth, remarked, “He had it back then. It just kept getting better and better. All styles, played with sensitivity and taste…and a deep pocket groove.” Fellow drummer Conrad Choucroun, a regular with artists such as Bob Schneider and Patty Griffin, said simply: “It’s sad to lose a hero.”
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 the recent 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.”
In a 2015 interview, Flanigin recalled when “Frosty said he would play with me every Friday and Saturday” at the Continental Gallery. “And that of course changed everything, because then I was playing with a master musician who’s a great organ drummer. Which was so hard to find; it’s a real niche sound.”
Former Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan recalled hearing about how Smith influenced the playing of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. “When Zeppelin came over to America for the first time, he and Bonham became friends, and Frosty taught him how to play solos with his hands,” said Monahan, who called Smith “the greatest drummer to call Austin home.
“He was a true musician. When you’d go and see him play, the best players were there watching him, because they knew they were in the presence of greatness.”
Survivors include his son, Jesse Frost, who lives in Fredericksburg with his wife and two children, and a daughter, Jill Hightower, of Austin. Funeral and memorial arrangements are pending.