Clarence Fountain was a little under the weather when they played here a
couple of weeks ago, but they still put on a great show.
The Blind Boys of Alabama
Must Be Blind Love
Writer: BEN HARTLAGE
Music enthusiasts can be grateful this holiday weekend for a visit from
three of gospel's most celebrated singers: George Scott, Jimmy Carter and
Clarence Fountain. As founding members of the Blind Boys of Alabama --
touring along with more recent additions to the group -- the three are
among a very short list of active, first-generation representatives of the
soul-gospel sound that inspired early soul, R&B and rock 'n' roll.
Sixty years on the gospel circuit would seem a fair excuse to become
anachronistic, but, through the years, the Blind Boys have been known as
much for adapting to popular demand as for their reverence for tradition.
Originally known as the Happy Land Singers, the group formed in 1938 at the
Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, where the young Clarence
Fountain was enrolled. At that time, the "jubilee" style was the standard
for aspiring gospel acts. Jubilee singing came into popularity when the
joyous, camp-meeting sound of traditional spirituals fell under the
influence of jazz syncopation and blues expression in the hands of the
celebrated Golden Gate Quartet. The signature Golden Gate spirit is evident
on the Happy Land Singers' earliest recordings from 1945.
"We just wanted to get us a group together and so we took that Golden Gate
record and said 'We gonna try to pick out the voices and make it our
thing,'" says longtime bandleader Fountain. "Then we stayed at it and done
the best we could and, after a while, we hit the jackpot!"
But, just as the band was finding recognition for its own jubilee
performances, the style was falling out of favor. In its place, the rough,
wildly spirited, soul-gospel sound was becoming popular in the churches.
Exploring the possibilities of soul-gospel, the band unearthed unknown
talents in Fountain. The new approach gave him room to modulate his vocal
lines from a smooth, deep baritone to a gravel-voiced scream that could
bring the house down.
As the group gained new audiences for their brand of soul-gospel, a New
Jersey promoter paired them with a similar act from the Piney Woods School
near Jackson, Miss.
"It was at a concert in New Jersey in 1948 and a promoter up there put
another blind group with us and said it was the 'Blind Boys from
Mississippi versus the Blind Boys from Alabama.' And that's where we got
Within a year or two, the two acts hit the road together, staging cutting
sessions in cities across the nation. With scorching vocal solos and a
stage bravado that would rival any secular act, the battling blind boys
took their audiences by force. Legendary duels between opposing bandleaders
(Fountain and Mississippi's Arthur Brownlee) brought success and prominence
to both groups. "[Arthur] could beat me singing, but I had a lot of nerve,"
says Fountain. "I tackled anything!"
In recent years, as in 1947, the Blind Boys of Alabama have weathered the
changes in gospel music better than any group on the circuit. Each shift in
style or emphasis has brought broader exposure and critical acclaim to the
band such that the past decade has been among the most profitable and
productive of its career.
Coming off consecutive Grammy-winning albums, the Blind Boys have just
released their first-ever Christmas album, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Much
like their previous two records, it features rousing collaborations with
artists such as Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde, George Clinton, Mavis Staples
and Solomon Burke.
While such contributions have been generally outstanding, it is through
their a capella recordings such as "The Last Time" on Spirit of the Century
that the Blind Boys make their truest, most lasting impact. "Too much music
makes you lose sound," Fountain declares. "We like simple things. If you
want to get a hit, keep it simple." And it is just these simple, unadorned
tracks that boil the blood and make even the most irreligious among us
stand up to offer thanks and praise.
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 28, at the Byham
Theater Downtown. 412-456-6666.