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Clip: Blind Boys of Alabama in Pittsburgh Friday

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  • Carl Zimring
    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. Carl Z. ***
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 27, 2003
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      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.

      Carl Z.



      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
      that name."

      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.
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