In 1937, Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, and George Scott met at the Alabama School for the Negro Blind, in Talladega, sixty miles east of Birmingham. They learned about Braille, menial handicrafts, and together they endured a sometimes brutal staff. "They would beat you for nothing—just 'cause you didn't get up on the right side of the bed, I guess," recalled Fountain to Pulse! magazine in 2001. "It was terrible."
But music connected them: vocal and instrumental classes, choirs and choruses. All three were fans of The Golden Gate Quartet, who had blended joyous African-American a cappella church singing with the silky elegance of The Ink Spots and Mills Brothers to help create the jazzy "jubilee" style of gospel music. Later, Fountain and his friends also excelled at the electrifying quartet sound, in which an impassioned and often improvised lead was sung-shouted over polished backing harmonies. Though, as Fountain put it, they "hadn't intended to be done with schoolin'," the situation at Talladega proved too much to bear, and in 1944, Fountain, Carter, and Scott joined with fellow students Johnny Fields and Olice Thomas and left Talladega to work professionally as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers.
Four years later, a Newark concert promoter pitted them against The Jackson Harmoneers and billed it as "The Blind Boys of Alabama vs. The Blind Boys of Mississippi." The show spawned a series of musical cutting contests between the groups, so successful that The Happy Land Jubilee Singers officially became known as the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Fields and Thomas retired due to health reasons, but the other three charter members—now in their mid-seventies—have toured together for six decades.
I caught up with the Blind Boys in their dressing room before a show at McCarter Theatre, near the Princeton University campus. Just two evenings before, on February 23, these venerable vocalists had won a second consecutive Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album with HIGHER GROUND, their acclaimed follow-up to last year's [2002's] SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY. They had recently appeared on THE TONIGHT SHOW and guested on the new Lou Reed album. In April, they will be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame; in May, they will tour Europe opening for Peter Gabriel.
Fountain was still glowing from the group's Grammy triumph. "This is our time," he said, though he noted that the broadcast version of the awards show overpromotes pop superstars at the expense of lesser-known but deserving acts.
"It's unfair to the bands and to the people to give all the time to the rock & roll," he said. "Gospel has all phases. Rock & roll can only go one way."
Clarence Fountain could have gone that way in the 1950s. Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, and Clarence's friend Sam Cooke were juicing their early pop and r&b hits with gospel stylings. A record producer wanted Fountain to do rock & roll. He refused. He had promised God that he would sing gospel. Today, he has no regrets: "I've had guys come up to me after shows and say, 'I'm going to make a change.' It makes you feel real wonderful, that you can help change someone."
The Blind Boys began recording in 1948 with the gospel hit "I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine." After a few fleecings by crooked promoters who short-counted receipts while insisting that singers for the Lord not be overly concerned about money, they eventually became savvy businessmen. Still, they might have languished on the revival circuit except for a surprise vehicle—their appearance in THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS, Bob Telson and Lee Breuer's Obie-winning resetting of Sophocles's OEDIPUS AT COLONUS in a Pentecostal tent revival. A 1983 opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was followed by a fifteen-week Broadway run and a stint at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. The cast album was co-produced by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.
"It was the best thing we'd had to expose us to new audiences," Fountain explained.
Among their new fans were numerous big names in music. The Blind Boys soon found themselves opening for or recording with the likes of Tom Petty, Merle Haggard, and Peter Gabriel. They have played the White House and toured America and around the world.
"And Turkey," Fountain said. "Believe it or not, our records sold good there. We were very much accepted.
"It's how you get up and present yourself," he added. "First, they got to hear if you can sing or not. Then if you can, you can do anything. We get a good feel for audiences. You have to know how to call your shots, what song to call at a particular time."
"The Blind Boys sing from the heart," said drummer Ricky McKinnie. "So everything they do reaches the heart."
"Audiences like this, we eat them up," Fountain smiled beatifically. "We play all the colleges, and we haven't failed yet. And I don't think we're gonna fail tonight."
Fountain will change the song list mid-show if he senses a need. He relishes the moment when the crowd is ready and he can "hit 'em with sure-enough gospel."
The Blind Boys of Alabama came out on stage at McCarter Theatre in a lockstep line. They walked right-left-right-left with military precision, hands on the shoulder of the man in front, so close together that it would be hard to slip paper between them. The tightly coordinated pattern was impressive, like watching the maneuvers of a half-time band, but it also evoked the more unsettling image of a chain gang. This was the same method used to move students around at Talladega those long years ago.
All seven performers were dressed in gold open-neck shirts and golden-brown windowpane leisure suits. And all wore wraparound dark eyeglasses, even the sighted players. The three blind singers were seated stage center with McKinnie behind them at his drum set and the three young, sighted guitarists stood flanking them.
Clarence Fountain was handed a microphone. "You know why I feel good tonight?" his voice exultantly filled the house. "Because we just won our second Grammy!"
Then bass guitarist Tracy Pierce laid down a strong, syncopated bottom line, and George Scott rose to sing the opener, "Run On for a Long Time."
Scott is a big, solid man. As he declared the law of God he looked powerful, even intimidating. Truth to tell, the entire group seemed sinister in their dark glasses and leisure suits. Fountain and Carter were reminiscent of Harlem gangsters from a 1970s blaxploitation movie. Guitarists Pierce, Caleb Butler, and Joey Williams looked like their enforcers. With his precise movements and neatly trimmed goatee, drummer McKinnie suggested a Mau Mau intellectual/revolutionary.
These kindly messengers of God conveyed a power that seemed almost demonic, and they knew it.
"The Devil gets to do what he wants on stage, and so do we!" Fountain declared during one especially raucous moment. "We don't mind gettin' ugly for Jesus!"
From time to time, Fountain would stand, slip back his jacket, smile saucily, and swivel his hips. The women loved it. Carter would flutter imploringly to the audience, then hop up and down as he delivered his musical messages. And Scott held his left hand close to his body as he sang, palm forward, a gesture reminiscent of a cleric in a medieval painting.
Their singing matched their performance styles: The age in Fountain's voice improved its earthy edge, Carter's tenor had a yearning purity, and Scott's low baritone was richly declarative.
My sense of a brooding subtext to the Blind Boys' music proved to be no idle deconstruction. Lead guitarist Williams soon rolled into the famous minor-chord intro to "House of the Rising Sun."
But when the group sang, it was not of the notorious Storyville bordello: "Amazing Grace/How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me..."
The arrangement, conceived by John Chelew, the group's current record producer, was riveting. "Amazing Grace" is usually the celebration of a happy soul on salvation's shore; sung to the tune of "Rising Sun" it was transformed into the testimony of a human tossed up from sin and misery.
I realized in that moment why I am left cold by most religious music, especially "praise songs." I don't question the praise singers' faith or sincerity, but so many of their numbers are bouquets to God, thank-you notes to the Holy Spirit, infomercials for Heaven. The Blind Boys praise the Lord yet bear burning witness to past trials. Praise singers celebrate their spiritual wealth; the Blind Boys want to get your soul out of debt.
Fountain introduced a Tom Waits composition "Way Down in the Hole" with the admonition, "Always remember one thing, and you'll be all right. Keep the Devil way down in the hole."
This was not New Age positive thinking nor convenient born-again deliverance. This was salvation as a tough, ongoing process.
Whether or not many people from this mostly secular crowd would find Jesus tonight, there was no doubt that the message was resonating. Even the most hardened atheist, after all, deals with personal demons that are real enough. The sheer tonnage of self-help books, medications, and libations that we consume as a society is proof of that. The Blind Boys were speaking not only to devout Christians, but to anyone struggling to keep those demons way down in the hole.
Clarence was reading the crowd perfectly. The band shifted into an up-tempo number, and a preppy fellow near me began vibrating like a tuning fork. His wife started to sway.
The energy level in the theater was rising inexorably. "We didn't come all the way from Alabama to New Jersey lookin' for Jesus!" Fountain shouted, beaming. "We brought Him along with us!"
The band crashed into "Look Where He Brought Me From." After several rousing verses, Jimmy Carter was led by rhythm guitarist Caleb Butler down a small set of steps, off the stage and smack into the audience.
The crowd surged to its feet and roared a welcome. Carter traveled the aisles, his waving hands barely visible in a sea of upraised arms. He sang and shouted and sang some more, sometimes holding twenty-five-second notes in screams of affirmation.
"Do you feel it?!" he called out over the din. "Do you feel it?!"
Over years of attending shows at McCarter Theatre, I had never seen such a spontaneous emotional surge. The concert had been transformed into a revival meeting. Only a doubting handful stayed resolutely in their seats. Sweet, joyous pandemonium. The Blind Boys' open spirits had liberated us.
Carter and his guide Butler returned to the stage, and the band segued into "Soldier (in the Army of the Lord)." Still on its feet, the audience pumped like pistons.
Above a standing ovation and pleas for an encore, the singers resumed their places. "One more for the road," said Clarence Fountain. Then he launched into the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "You'll Never Walk Alone."
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark
I seem to recall The Blind Boys of Alabama vanishing as they had materialized, in the old lockstep line. The applause went down, the house lights came up. People turned toward each other. I collected my belongings, and myself, and drifted out with the rest. There was a fog outside, but it seemed more a benediction than an obstruction. Hit with sure-enough gospel, even the old snow looked new.