Candles in the Dark

The Blind Boys of Alabama bring their brand of Southern gospel closer to the mainstream -- and help keep roots music alive

Clarence Fountain is the solitary spokesperson for the sightless gospel vocal troupe Blind Boys of Alabama. Interesting, because Fountain is not the world's most gregarious guy. He speaks softly and with few unnecessary words. Not that he's unfriendly, mind you, but considering he turned 73 late last month, has been performing since he was a pup, and is riding the crest of a wave of new popularity beyond all reasonable expectation, he's inclined to speak in slow, repeated phrases that have the weight of Biblical parables. He's more comfortable making simple declarations than he is engaging in casual conversation.

"My thing is to sing and let people know that we are serving the true and living God -- that's the most important thing," Fountain says from a hotel room in New York.

The night before, Fountain and the Blind Boys, which also includes original members Jimmy Carter and George Scott and more recent additions Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie and Bobby Butler, had played Madison Square Garden, opening for famed British art-rocker Peter Gabriel. Fountain is obviously still awash in the scope of the previous night's reception.

The Blind Boys of Alabama count Peter Gabriel and Ben Harper among their modern-day backers.
The Blind Boys of Alabama count Peter Gabriel and Ben Harper among their modern-day backers.


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"That was the best thing could ever happened to us, 'cause they had 17,500 people there, or more. We didn't have but 30 minutes to do it, and that made it better for me because I could get up there and do what I wanted in 30 minutes and sit down," chuckles Fountain. "We sing the way we feel, we sing to the glory of the Lord, and we just go and do it and do it good and get it over with and go home and lay down and go to sleep."

Fountain sounds like a minister, a retired preacher in an old Baptist church, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anybody familiar with the Blind Boys, unquestionably among the last originators of great hard and jubilee gospel sounds. A few groups came before them, most notably their initial inspiration, the Golden Gate Quartet, but there aren't many left standing from the era of the '30s and '40s. The word "venerated" comes to mind.

Over the course of those six-something decades, Fountain quit the group once, in 1969, and cut solo discs (he rejoined in 1980). The band has released countless discs for any number of labels, gaining an entirely new audience after appearing in the award-winning 1983 off-Broadway production of The Gospel at Colonus. More significantly, they've honed their skills and tightened their harmonies while music fashions have come and gone, other singers have died, and a nation has rolled and tumbled. When the Blind Boys started back in the early '40s, rhythm and blues had yet to be born in any identifiable form. Since then, the Blind Boys have played mute witness while everybody from Ray Charles to Whitney Houston has appropriated entire chapters from their book of good works.

Payback, in one sense, can be found in the Blind Boys' newest tracks, which include songs by Prince, George Clinton, Aretha, Curtis Mayfield and others, but at its heart, the music is soul to soul to soul.

Fountain and his honey-throated brethren are playing to the biggest crowds in their career, partly because of the success of their two most recent -- and successful -- CDs, Spirit of the Century, which earned the Blind Boys a Grammy, and Higher Ground, their newest release. Both were released on Gabriel's Real World label. Label executive Chris Goldsmith and producer John Chelew brought the Blind Boys into the new millennium by adjusting their production to standards that have one foot in gospel's past and the other in the rolling-rock folk and blues of the '70s and '80s. The combination is well-suited to an audience that has found salvation in old-timey music -- the O Brother bunch, in other words, without the banjos or twin fiddles. The sound may be a little different, but the spirit is the same.

"When you look at the popularity of O Brother and the Blind Boys, it's like there's a clean cultural wind, a breeze blowing across the public right now. I think folks had been in the candy shop, had too many chocolate malts, too much puffery and poofery and crap, and so they had a hunger to go back to something more authentic," says Chelew. "It means going back to the well, to the source, the authentic self. In rediscovering great music, it's like finding great things you already knew and maybe had forgotten about. It's spiritual, and not just because the Blind Boys are Christian -- they're also in the tradition of great storytellers and musicians. But their stories are about love and compassion and honesty and truth and dignity."

Chelew took a page from bands like Paul Butterfield's early '70s Woodstock ensemble Better Days, even appropriating a version of Better Days' "Nobody's Fault But Mine" for Spirit of the Century.

"When you put those records on today, they sound as fresh as if they were recorded yesterday. And it's through newer artists like Beck that those values are starting to return," adds Chelew.

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