When you talked with Albert Smith, you’d find him a gentle, soft-spoken man. But when he sat down at the piano to play and sing, he transformed. He played in a rollicking, barrelhouse style. When he sang the gospel or blues, it brought out of him shouts that sounded as if they came straight from the bottom of his soul.
Born in 1912 in Rembert, South Carolina, Albert began playing piano when he was 15 years old on an instrument his parents bought him from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. For his entire life, he lived on his family’s farm in Rembert. He made his living playing music In church and teaching piano lessons. He inspired countless young musicians in and around the unincorporated community of Rembert, which lies east of South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. One of them, Drink Small, would later become a Music Maker artist himself.
When we first discovered Albert, he was still playing his first piano, but it would no longer stay in tune. The following week, Music Maker sent him a good used piano. He loved it. We visited him many times and recorded hours of gospel and blues songs, some of which appear on our compilation albums “Blues Sweet Blues” and “Expressin’ the Blues.” Through our partnership with him, he was offered shows all over the country, but he refused every one.
“I’m not much for traveling,” he said. “I like being around home.”
Albert never released a proper album during his lifetime, but along the way, Music Maker collected many of his recordings. From those, we have curated an album called “Big Belly Mama.”
In this recording, you hear a glimpse of a forgotten America — Albert’s take on barrelhouse piano applied to blues and spirituals. We recorded this music in the 1990s and made a few trips down to visit him. We had so many recordings, but could not figure out how to issue this work. In comes our old friend musical director Ardie Dean. Ardie spent dozens of hours listening to all of Albert’s recordings, and painstakingly sequenced what we believe is a true masterpiece.
As Ardie puts it, “Listen to what joy, pain and God sounds like from 81 years of sanctified piano and anointed singing.”