Gospel band reaches new heights after 60 years

Steve Hammer

Tracy Pierce, Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinnie, Clarence Fountain, Bobby Butler, Billie Bowers, Joey Williams

Founded in 1937, the Blind Boys of Alabama may well be the longest-lasting musical group in history. Confined for years to the black gospel concert circuit, the Blind Boys have found critical acclaim and mainstream success in the last five years.

In fact, the group has never been in greater demand. With four consecutive Grammys and a string of albums made in collaboration with stars such as Ben Harper and Billy Preston, the Blind Boys of Alabama are more well-known than ever.

And even though the two surviving original members, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, are now 74 and 73, respectively, the band still averages between 150 and 200 performances annually, including their March 7 gig at the Music Mill.

"It gets a little hectic," Carter told NUVO in a telephone interview from his home last week. "But God is allowing us to go on, so we're going to go on as long as He says it's all right."

He said, "When the Blind Boys started out, we never thought we'd get this far anyway. But my philosophy is better late than never, but it changed. It took a long time coming, but it's here, and we certainly are grateful for it."

That change started in 2001, when their album Spirit of the Century won a Grammy and drew the attention of the mainstream music world. Their subsequent albums featured cameos from Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde and Aaron Neville, among others.

On Atom Bomb, the Blind Boys' most recent CD, the band remains as devout to their message as ever, while broadening their appeal with sanctified versions of secular songs. On the title track, a 1950s-era song likening the Rapture to the Cold War atomic scare, singer George Scott sings wistfully of heaven, only months before his own passing.

Elsewhere, the group covers the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray song "Demons," the 1960s pop hit "Spirit In The Sky" and Blind Faith's "Presence of the Lord," all with an added emphasis on the spiritual elements of the songs.

"Our producer, John Chelew, knows a lot of people, so he gets those songs," Carter said. "He brings them to us and we listen to them, discuss them and sometimes change some of the lyrics. We are a gospel group so we sometimes change the lines to give them a more gospel flavor. If it's not what we want, we don't sing it. But most of the time, we can change a line or two and it becomes a gospel song."

And singing songs such as Prince's "The Cross" helps build the group's musical appeal, Carter said. "When we recorded with Ben Harper, that was a great step forward because he relates to young people. And the Blind Boys are trying to bridge the generation gap, anyway. So when he came to us [in 2000] and suggested we make an album, that was really, really, really a great thing for us.

"And now," Carter said proudly, "the Blind Boys are reaching more young people than ever before."

He said that he can perceive a longing among young people for the message of God and that converting more souls is his life's work. "We still have a long way to go, because you still have a lot of young people who don't know about Christ. That's what the Blind Boys are trying to do. We're trying to get out the gospel message to them that they don't have to live the way they're living. They can do anything they want if they put Christ first. That's why we're trying to get involved with more of the young people."

Asked if he's had any miracles occur to him, Carter said, "I'm not sure if it's a miracle or not, but it's something I'd prayed for for a long time. I never remember seeing at all. And I used to ask God to let my mother live until I get grown. But He didn't want to do that. Now my mother is 100 years old and she's still alive. So I call that a miracle."

While the Blind Boys have performed tunes from the present, Carter says he doesn't think too much of today's so-called "contemporary Christian music."

"I'm not a contemporary person," he says. "We can do it, we sing it even, but some contemporary [Christian] music, you can't even tell what it is, whether it's rock and roll or if it's gospel. So for me, I'm not a contemporary man. We sing it because we want to please everybody. And there is some good contemporary stuff, now. Most of it, I don't care for. But that's just me."

With the contentment of a person who's lived many years and is not inclined to look unfavorably upon the past, Carter minimizes the struggles of the segregationist years. "We weren't really affected by that," he said.

When pressed further, he ventured, "We were limited, though. Our gospel message was limited to blacks at that time. We weren't allowed to sing to the white people. But when we started to sing for the white people, we found that they wanted it all the time, we just weren't allowed to give it to them."

Fountain co-founded the Blind Boys of Alabama as a 12-year-old student at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Carter joined the group in 1944 and has spent the last 60 years lending his soulful tenor voice to the band.

Originally called the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, the group found receptive audiences across the South, playing gigs at churches where their only pay came from a collection plate passed around the congregation, many of whom could ill afford to spare any money.

Along the way, they encountered such legendary figures as Mahalia Jackson ("A great lady she was," Carter said. "Just a wonderful lady.") and Sam Cooke, then a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers.

The Blind Boys and The Soul Stirrers were both signed to Specialty Records, home of Little Richard and Fats Domino, in the 1950s. At one point in the mid-1950s, Cooke decided he could make more money as a singer of pop songs.

Carter remembered the internal debate that Cooke faced.

"When Sam made his choice, we were right there in the studio with him, the same day. And the Blind Boys were offered the same thing. We could have gone [pop] at the same time, too. But we had made the Lord a commitment that we would sing for Him. We started out in gospel, we were brought up in a gospel environment and that's what we're gonna do. We're not gonna deviate from that. Wasn't even a temptation, we didn't think about [it]."

Asked if the band resented Cooke's decision to go secular, Carter laughed. "No, no, no. We weren't upset at Sam at all. We knew where Sam's roots were. A lot of people, blues people, country music people, most of them started out in the church. If that's the way they want to go, that's fine. But we started as gospel and we are going to stay as gospel."

So while Cooke went onto commercial success, the Blind Boys stayed true to their message and worked for years in relative obscurity. But commercial success was never their main goal anyway, Carter said.

"We have touched people's lives. We go into these different venues and people say they've had a change of heart. I don't know how many peoples' lives we've changed. But, in my mind, if we caused just one person to come to Christ, that's more than enough. But we've gotten more than that."

After being asked what he would say to a young person facing trouble, Carter sighed and delivered a statement that has lost none of its sincerity despite its constant telling over decades.

"All I can say is what any good Christian can say. God is there. All you have to do is reach out for Him. He's there. He's waiting for you. Trust Him. Have complete faith and He will bring you out. I know that. It has been proven. All of us have had trials and tribulations and God is a healing sustainer. He will see you through, but you have to trust Him and ask Him. He's right there to help."