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December 6-13, 2006

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Clarence Fountain

Bearing witness: While peers crossed over, the Blind Boys continued to keep the faith. 'Of course, it I was singing the blues,' Clarence Fountain can't help but add for the record, 'I'd tear it up just like B.B. King.'

Fountain of Youth

Blind Boys founder Clarence Fountain reflects on gospel's checkered crossover history

By Bill Forman


Clarence Fountain has witnessed his share of both successful and failed attempts to bring gospel to a broader audience: More than a decade before the Blind Boys of Alabama's resurgence on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, Fountain was starring on Broadway in the Obie-winning The Gospel at Colonus. But he was also part of Clara Ward's ill-fated touring Big Gospel Show in 1957.

"They had this idea that they could take gospel and do the same thing that rock & roll was doing," Fountain told me in an interview conducted back before his group signed to Gabriel's label. Indeed, while Ward's tour may have been a commercial failure, it signaled the beginning of an era in which more and more gospel artists were being tempted by the emerging R&B market, a career move Fountain dismissed as "singing for the devil."

"Sam Cooke's dad was a preacher, so he knew what he was doing," said Fountain, who recorded gospel for the same label as Cooke back in the mid-1950s. "I told him, you been singing about the Lord, and that's what brought you this far. If you don't think the Lord will carry you on, then go for yourself. More power to you.

"Hey, I had a chance to go too," said Fountain in a deep, rough-hewn voice that could outshout most any blues or R&B singer. "Little Richard was cutting with the same company, and he was out there making piles of money. All you needed was four chord changes to sing rock & roll. We wrote some tunes; we just didn't do them. The guys were urging me to go-go-go; I said no-no-no, I can't do that. You can't serve two masters at one time. You've got to serve God or serve man. Now I didn't say that--the Book said it. So I stay with the Lord." Pausing, the singer couldn't help but add for the record: "Of course, if I was singing the blues, I'd tear it up just like B.B. King."

Which is not to say that the group doesn't mix up its musical repertoire. "Hey, you have to be versatile to make this thing work," said Fountain. "All that music came from gospel; I don't care what kind it is. If you're talking about jazz, blues and gospel, gospel came first. That's a fact."

For Fountain, catering to mixed crowds all comes down to a matter of degree. "Just don't get too far across the line," he says. "You stay on your side of the line, you're all right."

In concert, the Blind Boys do everything short of stage diving to command the attention of audiences somewhere between a third and half their age. Their husky road manager, whose thankless job is to prevent the frenetic singers from crashing into mic stands and monitors, can often be found down in the crowd making futile attempts to drag soloing Blind Boy Jimmy Carter back onstage.

"The Blind Boys know how to play to the masses," explained Fountain. After a half-century of performing in churches and clubs and on Broadway, their stage formula is road-tested: Sing more. Talk less. But don't spare the theatrics. "You got to play psychological with the people," mused Fountain. "You know, the Bible describes people like cows or other animals. ..." He smiled, slowly stretching his syllables for dramatic effect: "Ee-zi-ly led to slaugh-ter."


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