The next time you read about Petra being "veterans", spare a thought for octogenarians FIVE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA. Mike Rimmer met up with true veterans of gospel music.
The release of 'Spirit Of The Century' on Brian Eno's Real World Records has given yet another shot in the arm to one of the longest running stories in Christian music. The Blind Boys Of Alabama have done just about everything imaginable in Christian music and I meet up with the band's living legend lead singer Clarence Fountain with considerable expectation. I meet Clarence in his hotel room in mid Wales where the band are performing at the Brecon Jazz Festival and he's in fine form. You'd think at this time of life he would be thinking of retiring and taking it easier. "For me, the more concerts the merrier! We've always been a busy group. We say to God, 'Don't spare us.' I want to do all I can do because when I'm done, I'm done!"
These days it seems like there's still plenty of work for Clarence to do. The band have many admirers outside of the church scene and they're happy to take their music onto a secular stage if it gives them the opportunity to share the Gospel. Brecon Cathedral is a magnificent venue for any kind of Christian music and on a Sunday afternoon in the summer it is literally packed to the rafters. Over a thousand people queue outside in the sunshine and it's a major operation to get everyone seated before the group take the stage. It's a predominantly white older audience and it takes a while for the crowd to warm up to the group preferring initially to sit and enjoy the music. But by the end of the performance they're hollering for an encore after having been lifted off their seats when the Blind Boys hit their stride on a stomping version of "Soldier". As they hit their stride, Jimmy Carter heads out into the crowd to provoke a call and response. The band lay down their tight rhythms and improvise as Jimmy goes walkabout. The result is that the crowd are electrified and amazed that these veteran singers have lifted the whole venue heavenward.
Spring of 2000 saw the group in the studio with producer John Chelew and a host of A list session players like John Hammond, David Lindley, Charlie Musselwhite and Danny Thompson. Clarence explains, "We got a guy who works for us in San Diego. He decided to put up his money. He got his buddy to put in half and he put in half and he came to me with the deal and said, 'We want you to do this. We got x amount of men, we got John Hammond, we got good musicians to play on it' I knew we could do it because we've played on stage with these guys before. So, it wasn't too complicated for me to make up my mind to do it. The guy that put up the money put up a lot because it was one of those really expensive studios...like $300 an hour! And we were staying there for four/five days! So you know that's a lot of money."
'Spirit Of The Century' is a mixture of traditional gospel songs delivered in true Blind Boys vocal style with a few numbers written by Tom Waits, Ben Harper and even a Rolling Stones song, "I Just Wanna See His Face". When it came to the material Clarence is very pragmatic. "Now I didn't say I agreed with them on the arrangements that they wanted but I went along with it because hey...it wasn't my money...it was theirs! What I thought was, 'I'm not going to say a word, I'll just do it because that's the way they want it done and that's what I'm going to do'...and we did it!"
It has to be an exceptional state of affairs for a group comprising of members all in their 70s to still be a worldwide concern, gigging and seeing their album sitting in the racks of your local record shop. Clarence is clear that the approach to making 'Spirit Of The Century' was part of the group's overall strategy to get their music into the general marketplace. He explains, "I want it to be in people's minds that the Blind Boys are a gospel group and they're good. That's what I want people to think. We are good at what we do because we serve the Lord and that's the most important thing. That rock'n'roll got the crowd. We want to help our crowd to be opposed to what the Devil is doing. We want to be on the Lord's side and do good on the Lord's side. We had all these good musicians playing on the record. They had their own thing, their own band but since we were known worldwide, we decided to bring them over into the gospel field, which is something that they'd never done. It really came out good, you know."
The album manages to mix a rootsy sound from the fine session players and some brilliant vocal performances from the Blind Boys. Talking about the musicians, Clarence comments, "They've never really played gospel before but music is music all over the world, whether you like it or not. When you play music, if you're good you're good and if you're not you're not. My theory always at the end of the day is if they can play the rock'n'roll, if they can play the other songs, then they can play gospel too because it's all the same."
Live, the group attract a non-Christian crowd that probably wouldn't go to any other Christian style event and yet appreciate the Blind Boys for their talents. That's what I like about it," Clarence says. "What I want to do is sing so good that the people who don't believe in God will have an idea that there is a God and besides him, there is no other. That's my belief. That's what I was brought up to believe. You see, I know what he can do and I know what he has done, so it doesn't bother me at all because I'm a witness that he can do what he says he can do."
In concert the group spend a lot of time singing and a small amount of time speaking. In Brecon, Clarence as front man lets the audience know that Jesus is alive and shares about Christ living inside of him. It's short and snappy and somehow coming from this seasoned gospel singer, the crowd listen with respect. Talking about testifying he says, "I used to do that a lot but when you change your habits of doing things, then you go and sing it out. We don't need to testify to anybody, we just sing it out and let people know that we CAN sing. With our show, we come in from different angles. We give you some contemporary, some traditional, some four part/five part harmony. We just have our programme lined up in our minds and how we're gonna do it and it works. If it works in one country, it'll work in another, I promise you that. It's good to just let people know that we serve the true and living God and we do get our inspiration from on high."
Clarence confesses to being 72 years old though some records have him older! He's lived through many changes in gospel stylings and yet the group have managed to keep on recording and performing no matter what the trends around him might be. When it comes to continuing for so long he shares, "When you sing, you go out and do what the Lord wants you to do. He gives you longevity. He gives you enough energy to do what you have to do because you're serving him."
He's also lived through times when a lot of talented black performers have deserted the Church to make a living making soul music. Or balanced a show biz career with making some Christian music. Clarence comments, "I know rock'n'roll people who say you can do the two but you can't serve two masters in one song. I don't care how you do it. You can't serve one and still love the other, you got to serve one and hate the other. You just can't serve the two. You might be successful but your soul is not contented. So, I decided to serve the Lord and I'm contented."
In the late '50s and early '60s Clarence had his opportunities to go secular but doesn't regret staying in gospel music. He confesses, "No. I had my chances to do that way back, 40 years ago when Little Richard and Sam Cooke were on the same label. I had my opportunity to go and sing the rock and secular tunes but I don't think that my mind was designed to sing that because the Lord never did tell me to do that."
Chatting with Clarence, the thing that strikes me most strongly is the simplicity of his faith and how with over 60 years of singing behind him, he has managed to remain untainted and free from cynicism even though he's undoubtedly been ripped off many times. He comments, "Yeah, but you know what you do, you just let God take control. When you put him in the front, nothing bad really is going to happen to you. I mean yeah, we've been ripped off but hey, that's all in the game. Some people do it on general principle because they know that they can get away with it but since we've been working for the agencies and they've been doing all the contracting and things like that, nothin1 like that don't ever happen now. When you think back over your life, you see how far the Lord has brought you from, then you have a right to really be able to appreciate God and appreciate what he does for you. He always provided for us in our time of need. I've never seen a hungry day on the road yet. I guess that came from the prayers of the righteous throughout the Church and I guess my mamma and my father were prayin' that these things wouldn't happen to us. We never went hungry a day in our lives."
Seeing the Blind Boys perform is something akin to appreciating living gospel history since the band are part of a dying breed. Clarence chuckles, "We just about the last of the Mohicans! But we live our lives and if we stopped tomorrow, I know I've done my duty.
We've been able to travel the world and do things that's necessary to be a gospel group. It's hard to do gospel and get into the places that we get into. It's just the goodness of God that enables us to do these things. We've been to venues that gospel groups have never been in. We're glad we can go to the jazz festivals and the blues festivals. We can just sit there and wait on our turn and get up there and just mesmerize the whole place. We like that!"
Just as I am leaving, Clarence comments, "I think I was born to do what I do. In the early days we didn't mind just singin'. We had no idea about whether we would become good or bad at it, we just sang because there was something there pushing us on. We know what it was now, it was God telling us what to do, not ourselves. We had no mind to do these things. But if you want to make it to the end, you got to get close as you can to Jesus. You're not perfect but you gotta do the best you can!"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.