Albert B. Smith was born in Bolivar County, Mississippi, on November 23, 1923. His family moved to Pace, Mississippi, in 1927. He danced with a jug band on the streets of Rosedale, Mississippi, when he was 7. He learned how to play the string bass in a school band after hearing Big Joe Williams and other Delta bluesmen at his mother's barrelhouse.
After shipping out with the Merchant Marine in 1940, he arrived in Chicago in 1943. In 1945 he started what he referred to as a "bebop" band. According to Rowe, it had 8 pieces plus blues singer Tiny Topsy (it is unlikely that Smith was able to carry all 8 pieces on some of his club engagements, however). Lists of contracts accepted and filed by Musicians Union Local 208 show that Smith and band were working on the South Side sporadically; presumably they were working outside of Local 208's territory the rest of the time. On August 15, 1946, Al Smith posted a contract for 2 days at the DuSable Lounge. On September 5, he posted a contract for a week at the Hurricane Lounge; on October 17, "Al. B. Smith" filed a contract for 2 weeks at the Quality Lounge. On March 6, 1947, Smith and band settled into a steadier gig at the Bonaire Lounge, filing for 8 weeks. On January 22, 1948, "Albert" Smith was at the Tradesmen's Lounge for 3 days; this led to a rare mention in the the Chicago Defender, whose January 24 issue ran an ad featuring Al Smith's Band during a Grand Opening at the New Tradesmen's Lounge. Another 3-day contract at the Tradesmen's was filed on February 5. On July 15, he posted another contract with the Bonaire Lounge, for 6 nights, and on August 5, he filed another, covering the nights of July 20 through 26. On October 7, "Albert B. Smith" posted a contract for 1 week at Club 21. On November 18, he filed for 3 nights at the Flamingo Lounge.
After that, he dropped off the contract lists for over 6 months. Another rare Defender sighting, on June 18, 1949, had Al Smith and the Band that Rocks playing at the Sawdust Trail. It was after the Sawdust Trail gig that Smith latched onto something steadier. He reappeared on the Local 208 contract list on July 21, 1949, with an "indefinite" deal with the Apex Club in Robbins, Illinois. On November 17, he filed another indefinite contract with what was now identified as the Apex Country Club. On December 15, he filed yet another with the Apex Show Club. On June 1, 1950, he filed still another indefinite contract with the Apex Country Club. On November 2, he posted a contract for another 2 weeks there.
In April 1951, Smith was back at the Bonaire Lounge, filing an "indefinite" contract on April 5. On July 5, he filed for a week at the Cork Club. On September 6, he posted a contract with El Morocco Lounge, for 2 weeks; this was followed by a 3-week contract on September 20, and a 5-week contract accepted and filed on October 4.
There are no known recordings from this period. In fact, Al Smith did not get on record until April of 1952, when he may have accompanied Johnny Shines on a famous blues session for JOB. Around that time the old Al Smith band broke up; in fact, Al Smith did not appear on the Local 208 list as a leader for 9 months, from December 1951 through August 1952. (His former vocalist, Tiny Topsy, went on to cut some singles for King in the mid and late 1950s.) Sensing how the commercial winds were blowing, Smith formed a smaller ensemble to play R&B.
From Fall 1952 through Spring 1959, Smith was most successful in the bandleading business. This was not on account of his instrumental prowess. Charles Walton said, "He held the bass... OK, he played the bass--but he didn't tune it first." Red Holloway agrees that Smith held the bass (in fact, when Al had to play on a record date he would ask Red to tune the bass for him!). By mid-1958, Smith had phased the studio bass playing out completely in favor of veteran Chicago musician Quinn Wilson, who had already appeared in many of his recording ensembles. Smith did continue to play the bass in bluesman Jimmy Reed's band through the early 1960s, but again other band members had to tune it for him.
Smith was well-liked by musicians; Tommy Hunter said that hardly anyone ever turned down a gig with him. His secret, according to Red, is that he got the gigs, and they always paid well. Lucius Washington recalls playing a dance with Al Smith and being told, "If they don't pay us on the first intermission, we don't play no more." Clearly Al Smith had little to fear from slow-paying promoters. (To put all of this in perspective, keep in mind that the fee for sidemen on Al's recording sessions was straight Union scale. That was $41.25--not always paid promptly, either.)
Among the better-known Chicago musicians who worked with Al Smith were Sonny Cohn, Booby Floyd, Red Holloway, Harold Ashby, Johnny Board, Leon Washington, Eddie Johnson, Lucius Washington (Little Wash), Von Freeman, Mac Easton, Horace Palm, Norman Simmons, Willie Jones, Sun Ra, Lefty Bates, Matt Murphy, Quinn Wilson, Vernel Fournier, Paul Gusman, and Alrock "Al" Duncan.
Between Fall 1952 and Spring 1959, Al Smith had recording sessions sewed up at four different independent labels in Chicago. He led house bands at Chance (1952-1954), Parrot/Blue Lake (1953-1955), United and States (1953-1956), and, most importantly, Vee-Jay (1954-1959). His primary employment in all cases was backing vocal groups, plus an occasional solo singer who didn't have a band. Instrumental tracks (except in the case of his valedictory session in 1959) were done during the studio time left over from vocal sessions.
Al Smith is a common name. At least two other Al Smiths were active in the world of R&B during "our" Al Smith's time. Albert Alan Smith, born May 1936 in Columbus, Ohio, was a soul-blues singer who cut two LPs for Prestige/Bluesville in 1959 and 1960. Alvin K. Smith (born August 8, 1926 in Monroe, Louisiana) sang on recordings with Jack McVea for the Combo and Tag labels in Los Angeles around 1955; he was responsible for other recordings on the West Coast, including some under the name Al King. Thanks to Eric LeBlanc for providing data on the other Als. .