Candles in the Dark
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.
"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.
With Spirit, Chelew attempted to find a through line to that feeling by hiring stalwarts such as Chicago's Charlie Musselwhite on the harp, John Hammond on dobro and David Lindley on guitar. The newer disc, Higher Ground, takes the idea one step further and a decade closer by unleashing pedal-steel whiz Robert Randolph and his band, as well as Ben Harper on some tasty wah-wah guitar action, particularly on the title track, the Blind Boys' cover of Stevie Wonder's song, which ought to be a hit if there's any justice in this world.
The Blind Boys have helped raise their profile by guesting on other recordings as well. They appear on two tracks on Gabriel's newest album, Up, and perform some wonderful back-up work on soul singer Solomon Burke's justly praised Don't Give Up on Me.
Burke, who likewise started in the church, was thrilled to have Clarence and the other lads aboard.
"Oh, man, that was the greatest thrill, 'cause I've always been a fan of the five Blind Boys, from back when I was a kid. And they're still 50 years old," Burke laughs. "They got some kind of magic potion, I don't know. And they sing like they just started! Day after they won the Grammy, they were in the studio. I had sweet potato pie for 'em, and fried chicken. They said, Let's go! Hit song! Gotta eat!' Within an hour, it was finished. We was mad 'cause there wasn't another song."
"That's accurate," Fountain responds. "We wanted to get in there and eat that chicken and that sweet potato pie -- that was our motivation. Feed me first, then I can go! Make me hungry right now, thinking about it. But we don't eat too much, we just eat enough, 'cause we ain't gonna be like him -- he's big and fat. We don't want to get that way, so we eat just enough to get by."
Having gotten by for more than half a century, Fountain is entitled to contemplate retirement. Asked about it, he says, "I can do another three or four years, and I'm done. Then I'll go back home to Baton Rouge, where I live. But for right now, I sung to 17,500 people there, and some more. Make me feel like I never felt before, and that's good, 'cause we never had the chance to sing for that many people, you know, at one time, and we had a chance to put our little dab in and have a good time and sing it the way we wanted to sing it.
"We closed last night with If I Had a Hammer,'" says Fountain, "and we got it on, and we moved 'em -- we moved 'em up like we wanted to. We're trying to focus our fight on things that are going on right now, not things that are past and gone, to carry on and do the best we can, due to the circumstances."
"We have a warmongering bunch of old men up in Washington, and there's all kinds of crazy stuff that's happening," says Chelew. "And in times of strife, we need to go back, to look to the values of gospel and traditional music of all kinds. It's a light in the darkness."
Leave it to the stoic Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama to be the ones to light that candle in the dark.
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