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 a bout of 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 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, Toni Price and Omar & the Howlers, among dozens of others. 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-1990s and had a minor hit with the song “Bonecrusher.”
“There are a lot of great drummers in Austin, but Frosty was the best drummer I ever played with,” Austin musician and producer Danny Levin said Thursday. Levin first met Smith around 1984 at Hut’s, where Levin played a weekly show with Tex Thomas & the Danglin’ Wranglers. Smith soon became the group’s drummer.
“His understanding of rhythm, and his ability to translate that into what his hands and feet could do, was genius-level phenomenal,” Levin said.
Smith already had built quite a resume before moving to Austin. Playing with Bay Area bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he accompanied soulful organ player Lee Michaels on a couple of albums and was a member of the Bay Area band 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.
Smith later moved to Los Angeles, touring 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.
“I started staying here (in Austin), going out nights, and, man, the local scene was just wonderful,” he said in 1991. “When I came to Austin, I was real impressed with the sharing that goes on.”
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.
In a 2015 interview, Flanigin recalled when “Frosty said he would play with me every weekend” 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.”
Former Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan recalled hearing about how Smith influenced the playing of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, teaching Bonham how to play solos with his hands.
“When you’d go and see him play,” Monahan said, “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.