For many decades, African-American churches have worried about losing their best singers to secular music. And inevitably, many of them will, in fact, explore secular music instead of devoting 100 percent of their time to gospel. Al Smith is a perfect example. The obscure singer's roots were gospel, but he favored a jazz-influenced approach to blues and soul when he recorded two albums for Prestige/Bluesville: Hear My Blues in 1959 and Midnight Special in 1960. Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's famous New Jersey studio, Midnight Special finds Smith backed by a rock-solid quintet that consists of King Curtis on tenor sax, Robert Banks on organ, Jimmy Lee Robinson on electric guitar, Leonard Gaskin on acoustic bass, and Bobby Donaldson on drums. While the lyrics are totally secular, Smith's gospel background never goes away. You can tell that the passionate, highly expressive singer has a church background whether he is embracing straight-up blues on "Goin' to Alabama" and Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years" or getting into soul on "I Can't Make It By Myself," "You're a Sweetheart," and "The Bells." Smith has a big, full, rich voice, and he uses it to maximum advantage throughout this excellent album (which Fantasy reissued on CD in 1996 for its Original Blues Classics series). With the right exposure, Smith might have become a major name in 1960s blues and R&B -- he certainly had the chops and the talent. But, unfortunately, he never enjoyed the commercial success that he was most deserving of. Nonetheless, Midnight Special is an album to savor if you're the type of listener who holds classic soul and the blues in equally high regard.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson