Missions accomplished: The Blind Boys still maintain a work ethic that would put musicians a quarter of their age to shame.
Spirit of the Century
The Blind Boys of Alabama find gospel in the unlikeliest places
By Paul Davis
There's a warmth to vocalist Jimmy Carter, but also a commanding presence you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of. And when the septuagenarian founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama explains what gospel is, you'd best listen to the sermon. "A lot of people don't understand what gospel is, what gospel stands for," says Carter. "Gospel stands for the good news of God, so automatically when you're doing gospel you're preaching God's word through song, so that's what we have been doing for all these years and that's what we're going to continue doing as long as God says so."
For over a half-century, the Blind Boys of Alabama have embodied modern gospel, bringing the good word of God to the flock since the Allied Forces fought the Axis, through the Civil Rights movement and into the present day. In recent decades, the founding members Clarence Fountain (see sidebar), Carter and George Scott (who passed away in April of 2005) have become nothing less than an American institution, performing in the seminal 1983 Broadway play The Gospel of Colonus, earning multiple Grammy awards and nominations, and being inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame. Though Carter and Fountain are the only remaining original members in the current lineup (which also includes Bishop Billy Powers, Ricky McKinnie, Caleb Butler, Joey Williams and Tracy Pierce), the group's avowed mission remains the same, even as they have navigated the waters of the secular, mainstream music world--good, clean gospel music that soothes the soul and inspires worship.
The original members met in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind at Talladega, and soon formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, which in time became the group that in its early days was called the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
"We started out at a school for the blind in Alabama in this town called Talladega," Carter recalls. "This school was funded by the state of Alabama, and the blind boys and blind girls who wanted an education could come to this school free of charge. Blind boys and blind girls from all over the state of Alabama came to this school, and the Blind Boys met up there--they had a male chorus that we joined and we started singing and we got in the choir too." As a five-piece, blind, African American gospel group in the segregated South, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama experienced their share of hardships in the early years, yet Carter does not dwell on those. "We had a rough time starting out," he says. "But as the years went by, God was good to us, so we're doing really good right now, we're grateful for that."
For nearly six decades, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama--now a seven-piece, hence the shortened name--worked the traditional gospel circuit, becoming an unstoppable force in that circle yet relatively obscure in the secular world. But in 2001, executive producer and manager Chris Goldsmith wagered that the Blind Boys could cross over into the pop world without losing their identity or sacrificing their religious fervor. Goldsmith actively courted Peter Gabriel's Real World label, which opted to release the Grammy-winning 2001 comeback Spirit of the Century. Since signing to Real World, the Blind Boys have reached out to a much wider audience, reinterpreting a number of secular songs written by some of the unlikeliest of artists, such as Funkadelic, Tom Waits and, on their latest Real World release, Atom Bomb, Fatboy Slim and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky." Carter takes exception to the distinction between the Blind Boys' gospel work and their reinterpretations of secular songs, emphasizing that the Blind Boys transform any song they do into gospel. "You say 'secular'--Blind Boys do gospel," he says. "When people bring songs to us, they might be secular in nature, but we can add some stuff and turn it into a gospel song. That's what we do."
Drummer Ricky McKinnie, who with 17 years as a member of the group is a relative newcomer, explains the Blind Boys' broad, inclusionary approach to collaborating with other artists, a short list of whom includes Charlie Musselwhite, Richard Thompson, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, George Clinton and Ben Harper, with whom the group has extensively toured and released a live album. "We believe that working together works and that people need people, so it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from as long as you're singing a good clean tune, the Blind Boys don't mind singing along with you," he says. McKinnie hints that their record label has guided many of the group's career choices in recent years--noting, for example, that "our producer decided they wanted to use 'Atom Bomb' as the title cut, we really wanted to use 'Spirit in the Sky'"--but is quick to add that the group are very careful in choosing the secular material that they will perform. "There have been a few songs that we have had to turn down during the last few years; when the lyrics don't fit what we're doing, we just won't do it," he explains. In some cases, the group radically alters the content of songs they interpret, such as their interpolation of the melody of "House of the Rising Sun" with the lyrics of "Amazing Grace." Carter explains, "We don't sing nothing but gospel music, so when they bring songs to us, if some of the content is not what we want, we take it out and put something else in."
Atom Bomb features some of the most radical departures the Blind Boys have made to date, including the introduction of hip-hop loops to the mix and an appearance by Gift of Gab from Blackalicious. For such a traditional and pious group, the hip-hop elements may initially seem like a stretch, though McKinnie points out that the roots of hip-hop can be found in the gospel music the Blind Boys have been performing since the 1940s. "You know, what it's all about is that, when the Blind Boys started out, they were the Happy Land Jubilee Singers and jubilee was the forerunner to rap, so we've been rapping for 60 years," he says. "They just had to pick up on what we were already doing. My mind is open for a lot of things, and whatever it takes to make the music happen, that's what it's all about with me, because I've learned that what's from the heart reaches the heart and as long as the music reaches the soul it's alright with me."
In the process, the group has acquired a much younger audience than it has had in recent decades, appealing to the burgeoning roots revival embodied by the likes of Harper while crossing any number of generational lines. "That's what we were aspiring for, to get more young people involved in our music," Carter explains.
"Having these other people to work with us, Ben Harper and people like that, I think that bridged the generation gap, and that's what we were trying to do." McKinnie notes. "It feels good to know that music has no age limit and people can accept you no matter who you are, where you are, where you've been coming from. It's not about how old you are, how young you are, it's about the music and it makes us feel good to know we can sing to audiences of all directions no matter where you come from or where you been, we got something for you."
Despite their studio experimentation, McKinnie emphasizes that the Blind Boys' live performances remain the same off-the-cuff, uplifting gospel jubilees they've always been. "We do things live the Blind Boys way; sometimes we feel it one way and sometimes we feel it another way," he says. "We just do what we feel and most times it works out just right. We have a tendency to call the right songs. And the main thing is that if someone comes to the program sad, we try to make them glad. And if you want to have a good time, we always try to have a good time."
While many contemporary Christian artists have suffered a backlash from their core audience when they embraced a more mainstream, secular crowd, both Carter and McKinnie insist that they haven't experienced any such blowback from the gospel audience as they bring their holy message to the mainstream. "We sing to the masses, we're on the mainstream channels right now," McKinnie states. "We don't just promote our stuff to gospel people, we promote our stuff to the world and when you think with an open mind, it's not about the style of the song, it's about the words of the song. Every song has a story to tell, and we try to tell a positive story, and we've never had any problems so far."
Carter is pointedly unapologetic about courting the mainstream, and is downright effusive about the opportunity to bring the Blind Boys' gospel message to a wider, and largely white, audience. "We have a bigger audience now than we ever had," he says. "Since we've been in the mainstream, we have bigger crowds than we've ever had. Most of them are white now, and we have been trying to get to the white people for the longest time, but you know how the south was back [in the '40s], we couldn't do it. We found out that they wanted to hear it all this time, but we couldn't get it to them. So now we did and everybody's having a good time now."
"It feels great, you know," Carter says. "It's been a long time coming, but the old cliché is 'better late than never,' so we feel good about it, it's coming along fine. We're going to enjoy it as long as we can."
Even as the members of the Blind Boys enter into their twilight years (Fountain is 77, Carter 74), they retain a work ethic that would put musicians a quarter of their age to shame. And despite certain health setbacks in recent years, including but not limited to Scott's recent passing, they have no plans to retire whatsoever. "We don't see any kind of retirement in the foreseeable future," says Carter. "We've got pretty good health, we've got some diabetics in here, I'm one--but the health situation is doing good, so as long as we can keep our health we're going to go on." While the group's immediate plans are focused around touring and returning to the studio, the Blind Boys have other grand plans that for the time being they're keeping close to their chests. "We've been talking to somebody about doing a movie deal about the Blind Boys," McKinnie notes, though he can't go into specifics at this time. "As God permits, we're just going to let the blessings flow, whatever will be will be, and whatever's gonna be, we hope it's going to be great."
McKinnie agrees that there is not a foreseeable end of the group, and suggests that as long as there is a demand for music by the Blind Boys of Alabama, there will be a lineup to perform it. "As long as people want to hear the Blind Boys, there's going to be someone for them to hear," he says. "We're going to keep on giving them what they like, that's the good music, music that makes you feel good, music that lifts your spirits, just music to make you fell glad. And that's what we're trying to do, we're trying to let people know that a disability doesn't have to be a handicap and it's not about what you can't do that's important, it's about what you can do. And we know if you keep the faith, do the work and hold on, everything's going to be all right."
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 7:30pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $40 gold circle members/$25 general. For more information, call 831.427.2227 or visit www.riotheatre.com.
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