The Blind Boys of Alabama may not have been around when gospel music was born, but they were there in a big way during its adolescence, when gospel first started to receive notice on a national scale. They were barely teenagers themselves back then in the early 1940s, a group of five young black boys from the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, some 40 miles east of Birmingham.
As you might imagine, life was no picnic for blind, black boys in state-run institutions in those days, and as soon as an early incarnation of the singing group started to receive notice, the boys hit the road and never looked back. Along the way, they ushered in the golden age of gospel (in the late ’40s and ’50s) and sat perched among the giants of the genre–some of whom, like Sam Cooke and Little Richard, would forsake their roots to chase the stardom of popular music.
They witnessed their share of indignities, such as when the Rolling Stones adapted a Blind Boys arrangement of a traditional gospel tune, “The Last Time,” and turned it into a smash hit, without paying royalties. They were cast as a grits-and-fatback Greek Chorus in the ’80s Broadway hit musical Gospel at Colonus, a turn that, ironically, rejuvenated their careers and paved the way for world tours.
They’ve hit yet another peak of popular acclaim with last year’s release of Spirit of the Century, an album that pairs the three remaining original Blind Boys (along with several members of their road band) with some of the living legends of blues, including guitarists John Hammond and David Lindley, and harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite.
The album, which has been nominated for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album in this year’s Grammy Awards, features stunning takes of traditional gospel songs mixed with righteous readings of works from the likes of Tom Waits, Ben Harper and (in a sly bit of payback) the Rolling Stones. Another highlight is a haunting version of “Amazing Grace” set to the ominous melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” an artistic dichotomy pulled off through the sheer strength of the Blind Boys’ deep, soaring vocals.
Seventy-one-year-old Blind Boys founder Clarence Fountain found time to talk with the Independent by phone last week from San Francisco, where the Blind Boys were playing a series of sold-out shows with the band that backed them on Spirit. They will appear, along with their regular touring band, at the UC Ballroom at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 23. The show is free, part of the university’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Missoula Independent: What’s the main difference between playing with your band and these blues guys?
Clarence Fountain: Our band has a little more weight and is a little more predominant than the band we cut the record with because we play together all the time. The difference comes in because we know every move we make, and that’s not necessarily so with John [Hammond] and them, cause John and them play the blues, you know.
When you play with someone for four to five years they know every move you make and you can’t hardly make a mistake. They’re right on you and they know how it’s supposed to go. That makes a difference because you just don’t get the feel with the studio band that you’d really like to get. They do that thing, they concentrate on doing that rhythm and blues and we concentrate on doing the gospel, and there’s a difference between them.
MI: What is the difference, in essence, between blues and gospel?
CF: Well, they different, but they go hand-in-hand. I can sing anything I want to. If I want to sing the blues, all I got to do is change the lyrics. And if I want to sing the gospel, you just go back and sing the melody to whatever it is we’re doing. With “Amazing Grace” we put it in the song “House of the Rising Sun,” and it works out good. We just changed the melody and sung the words to “Amazing Grace.”
MI: You’ve seen a lot of your peers cross over and get rich and famous in pop music. Why have you stuck with gospel?
CF: I made that decision a long time ago. I never wanted to sing rock ’n’ roll, never wanted to do things that are contrary to the way I think. I never wanted to transfer from gospel to rock ’n’ roll, I never had the desire to do that. I think that makes me more permanent to hang in with the gospel because I love it and that controls my life. When I talk about how good the Lord has been to me and how he brought us from where we’re from. All these things, the tunes and the way you think, is the thing. I like the blues all right. I can listen to it. I just don’t want to sing it.
MI: You’ve said that you made a promise to God to sing gospel. How do you go about something like that?
CF: I did that a long time ago, way back when we first started out. I prayed and told the Lord I just wanted to be true to him and wanted to do the right thing. Now some people may say there ain’t no harm in singing the blues. Well, maybe there ain’t, if that’s the way you think. But you’re saved by your belief or your damned by it, so I believe it is because the Scripture tells us you can’t serve two masters at one time, so that’s always been my fear [deep chuckle].
MI: Is gospel your way of preaching the word of the Lord?
CF: I don’t say preach. I say it’s a musical way to tell people that there’s a reality in serving God, you know. I had a chance to go another direction—me and Sam Cooke were in the studio at the same time. He chose to go his way and I chose to go mine. We were working for the same record company. It didn’t ever phase my mind to do that. It’s just what you want out of life. I just want to serve God and that’s my philosophy.
MI: You’ve turned the tables on some rock songs by doing straight gospel readings of them. Is this turnaround as fair play?
CF: They did the same thing to us so why not? [Deep chuckle] And it all pays off after a while. The Lord says, you go out and work at whatever’s right, and I’ll pay you. Don’t worry about getting paid otherwise. When you get paid by God, that’s a good pay.
MI: What about the Rolling Stones’ song on Spirit of the Century?
CF: They stole mine, so I just stole one back. No problem. They stole “The Last Time.” I wasn’t as smart as I am now. If I was I’d have gotten all the royalties off that [laughs]. Now we got a lawyer for a manager, so we got no problems.
MI: Does the Grammy nomination mean a lot to you?
CF: Yeah, I’m proud of that, but I want to win the whole thing [laughs]. I don’t want to be nominated, I want to win it all. That’s what I’m praying for. That would be a big push in my life. I’m winding down, and I guess I ought to retire real soon, it ain’t going to be too long. If the next CD comes out all right [the Blind Boys go into the studio in March], then maybe I hang in there for a year or two more, but I just want to do good for the Lord, that’s all.
MI: Does playing for the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration hold any special meaning for you?
CF: Not really, because I normally celebrate MLK every year. It’s good that we did this because it keeps his name alive. He done a great thing and lost his life, but he done a good thing. I could tell you some stories about how things were back in those days. It’s amazing what he’s done. That was a brave thing he done and I think it was all done by God because he’s got the whole world in his hands, and he controls everything, so that was the time it needed to be done.
MI: There’s a long tradition of seers and oracles who do not have the physical ability of sight. Do you believe the Blind Boys have “second sight?”
CF: I think we have a certain insight. I think when God takes one thing from you he gives you something better. So he gave us voices to sing and gave us a job to do, and we’re out here doing the job.
MI: Have you ever resented the fact that you’re blind?
CF: No, no. I lost my sight when I was about two, and I have just a little recollection of sight. But once you come up in a sightless world it doesn’t matter because, hey, that’s the way it is and you have to accept or reject it. And if you reject it, you got a hard road to travel. But if you accept it, you can deal with it.
MI: If you and the other Blind Boys hadn’t been blind, do think you’d still be singing?
CF: I doubt that, ’cause we all went to school together. That makes the difference there. I probably would have been just like everybody else, get me a job and go out in the world. But that’s the way it is, and I’m grateful for how it turned out.
MI: We don’t get much in the way of gospel up in this neck of the woods. What can we expect from the show?
CF: Well, that makes it better for us. If you haven’t gotten a lot of genuine gospel, that means we can do a better job. My thing is that I want people to come and hear the Blind Boys because we make them feel something that they never felt before. Maybe, more than likely, that’s the spirit of God because we sing with inspiration from on high. Anytime the Lord can step into your path and make an audience get up and clap their hands and feel good, that’s a good thing. Think about that.
MI: Is the spirit of the Lord with you at your shows?
CF: Oh yeah. Of course.