The Blind Boys Of Alabama: Seven decades of gospel and still going strong

Tuesday 6th November 2007

Susanne Martin reports on one of the longest running sagas in gospel music history, THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama
The Blind Boys Of Alabama

As the Second World War was just beginning to unfold in Europe, five Afro-American blind schoolboys joined together to form a gospel singing group which was to become The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Seven decades down the road and the group are topping the US charts and receiving Grammy after Grammy for their undying talent. These vocalising veterans still work incredibly hard. Blind Boy Jimmy Carter told Ability Magazine, "I would say [we perform] 150 to 200 days out of a year, give or take." He's been singing with the boys since "1944, June 10th."

The boys attribute their longevity and unexpected stardom to their faithfulness to God and his blessings on them. In an interview with Phantom Tollbooth, singer Ricky McKinnie said, "If you want to be biblical about it, the Bible says, 'If I (Christ) be lifted up I will draw all men unto me.' That is what happened to The Blind Boys Of Alabama. We have been out there singing the Gospel and carrying the good news. God is just doing what he said he would do. He said, 'If you will be faithful over a few things he will make you master over even greater things.'" When in the '50s and '60s whole legions of singers moved from the Gospel Highway to the far more lucrative field of soul music the Boys turned down similar offers to go secular to stay true to what they believed. Founder member Jimmy Carter explained to HMV Choice, "When they offered Sam Cooke a deal, they offered The Blind Boys one too. But The Blind Boys turned it down. We said, 'We want to stick with gospel music. God has been good to us and we're not going to deviate from that.'" The group's original lead singer Clarence Fountain echoed that view: "If I went rock'n'roll, I'd be putting the Devil before God. As long as he kept me with bread and some money in my pocket, I didn't want to be rich. My theory was that if you're going to be faithful, be faithful until the end. And he's still blessing us right now. I never walked out on him and I never did the things that other folk were doing. I didn't drink and I wasn't into drugs. It wasn't my thing."

So far, the noughties have seen the group go from strength to strength. In 2003 their star-studded Christmas album, 'Go Tell It On The Mountain', saw the Boys receive their third consecutive Grammy award. The Blind Boys' popularity once again peeked after a session with young chart-topping artist Ben Harper turned into the full-fledged 2004 album 'There Will Be A Light'. The hit was nominated for three Grammy's and also saw The Blind Boys enter The Billboard Top 100 in the US for the first time in their history. On different projects the band have performed and recorded with numerous mainstream stars including Peter Gabriel, Prince and Aretha Franklin. They also recorded with Christian band Jars Of Clay for Michael W Smith's 2006 movie The Second Chance. "We don't mind singing songs with people who don't sing in the same genre as us," said McKinnie in Phantom Tollbooth. "It's like having dinner; you have the vegetables, the meat, the salad and you have dessert. It all goes together to make one big meal. When you show people that you are not just all one side, just a gospel group, you are not just a blues artist, you aren't just a jazz artist but you're an artist. And The Blind Boys are artists." On their latest album, 2005's 'Atom Bomb', the Blind Boys present their version of the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray song "Demons", which features rapper Gift Of Gab from Blackalicious. The album also features Los Lobos guitarist David Hildago and blues harp king Charlie Musselwhite on several tracks. Fountain commented on Musselwhite's performance on the album to "You know musicians," he said. "They're very vulnerable to playing gospel! If you can play the blues, you can play gospel. . . The melody doesn't change too much, it's the words that change. The blues, you're singing to your woman, with gospel we're singing about the Lord. And I think that, to be precise, people who sing about their woman, or a woman who sings about her man, hey, that's no connection to what we're singing about. We're singing about God, singing about Jesus, so there's your difference."

The Blind Boys Of Alabama have also been recognised for their inspiring achievements despite their disability. The group even owes their formation to the original members attending a school for the blind where they were taught how to sing and read music in Braille. McKinnie lost his sight in 1975 by glaucoma. He said, "I never think about being a blind person. I never sit back and think about being a sightless person. My moto is, 'I'm not blind, I just can't see.' A lot of people want to know what does that mean. When you are blind you have no direction. I am well directed and I'm on my way up." At the 22nd Annual Media Access Awards the band were honoured with the American Federation Of Television And Radio Artists (AFTRA) Disability Awareness Award.

Clarence Fountain (photo: Andy Hall)
Clarence Fountain (photo: Andy Hall)

Over the years, the band has performed at countless locations from China to Australia and in venues from chapels to nightclubs. "We like to spread the word of God to everybody we can," said Carter. "When we first started out we were just playing churches, schools and auditoriums, but now we go to clubs, we go everywhere. You can't get to a lot of people unless you go these places. Some folk don't go to church. We were criticised when we first went to these different venues - 'You're Christians. What are you doing in a nightclub? You've got no business in there.' But now people understand that in order to get the word out, you have to go wherever you can."

Soon after the release of 'Atom Bomb' the group's baritone singer, George Scott, passed away in March 2006 aged 75. Scott was the third founding member along with Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain back in the 1940s. But the group is still determined to carry on till the end. "It's a hard thing to say, 'Well, we'll just quit!" so we just tried to move on," said Fountain. The Blind Boys Of Alabama are now looking forward to the release of their new album 'Down In New Orleans' in the US in January 2008. They still have assured confidence in God's plan for them and will continue singing gospel songs for as long as possible. Said Carter, "We're just going to see what God has in store for us. We don't know what the future holds but we just hope that we can go on a little while longer. We have faith in God and we believe he's going to let us go on until he says, 'That's enough. . .'" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Susanne Martin
Susanne MartinSusanne Martin is studying journalism at Staffordshire University.


Be the first to comment on this article

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.


Connect with Cross Rhythms by signing up to our email mailing list

It's All About Lives
Cross Rhythms Media Training Centre
Artists & DJs A-Z
# A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #
Or keyword search


Be genuine and real and incinerate your attitudes and apathy in our Prayer Room