As a rule, people who appreciate the late Jimmy Witherspoon have a very favorable reaction to Al Smith -- that is, if they get a chance to hear him. Neither of the two albums that Smith provided for Bluesville (Hear My Blues in 1959 and Midnight Special in 1960) are well-known. While Witherspoon was a big name in the blues world, Smith was a gospel singer who dabbled in secular music. But when Smith did venture outside the gospel realm, his approach was quite comparable to Witherspoon's -- like Witherspoon, he favored a jazz-influenced approach to blues and R&B. Smith, in fact, is backed by hard-swinging jazz musicians on Midnight Special, including tenor titan Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, organist Shirley Scott, bassist Wendell Marshall, and drummer Arthur Edgehill. Davis and Scott were both well aware of the power of the blues, and they were perfect for a jazz-minded bluesman like Smith -- who soars on original material as well as inspired, passionate performances of the Ray Charles hit "Night Time Is the Right Time" and the sentimental Johnny Ace ballad "Pledging My Love." Was Smith a blues purist? Absolutely not. Although some of the tracks have a 12-bar blues format (including the gutsy "I've Got the Right Kind of Lovin'"), others are really R&B. "Pledging My Love," for example, is a classic '50s R&B ballad -- and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Besides, Witherspoon was never a blues purist either; although he was primarily a blues singer, the versatile Witherspoon also recorded his share of R&B and got into some jazz-oriented torch singing as well. Both of Smith's Bluesville albums are well worth owning, but if you had to pick one of the two, Hear My Blues would the best starting point.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson