Music News

When God Bellies Up to the Bar

No, they aren't all blind, and there are seven of them, not five. Clarence Fountain, the man who founded the Five Blind Boys at Alabama's Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind back in 1939, patiently explains the current status of one of gospel music's most revered singing groups. "There are four Blind Boys now, including me," he explains in a telephone interview from his hotel room in San Diego, "and we've got three sighted guys. The sighted guys play guitar, bass and drums, and they sing, too." Fountain, who still sings lead on most of the group's songs, is the only original member in the current band, having split with the other original members back in 1979. Today, he's steering his updated version of the ensemble (now in its tenth year) into what may be a new era.

Since June, the Blind Boys have switched from playing predominantly in churches to playing in nightclubs--a new calling that will bring them to Chuy's this Sunday afternoon. In many ways, the switch recalls the classic problem of the gospel artist: how to take advantage of the secular world without abandoning the sacred. Fountain, robust and enthusiastic at age 57, thinks he can do both.

The Blind Boys had their chance to jump into pop music long ago, Fountain says. But they decided against it. "It's all about principles," he says. "We came up in the Sam Cooke era, and my thing was, you can't serve the Lord and the devil, too. My philosophy is, either do one or the other. I know rock 'n' roll was big back then, and I know we could've gotten into it because we were with Specialty Records out in California. When Sam [Cooke] was goin' that way, we could've gone, too. We had the chance. But we just stuck with what we believe in. The matter is all about what you believe in and what you don't."

But while most others in the gospel field restrict their performances to appearances in churches and auditoriums, Fountain says his beliefs restrict what he sings, not where he sings it. This year's move into the clubs isn't the first time he and the Blind Boys have taken a stab at attracting a secular audience.

"We came out to California in 1966," he remembers. "That's when the hootenannies were going big. You might remember that. We played in quite a few nightclubs out there then. That's back in the Sixties, when [gospel singer] Clara Ward was in Vegas. We were in Hollywood and playing some clubs there. We were scuffling then and trying to get our heads above water. The guy who was trying to help us--you might have heard of him, Bumps Blackwell [Little Richard's manager]. He was trying to get us a deal so we could do just like Clara Ward over there in Vegas--makin' all that big money. She went to Vegas for four weeks, and they brought her back for nineteen more!"

Fountain says the sort of popularity Ward found with audiences in Las Vegas speaks for itself. "You got to realize one thing: Gospel is the thing that anybody can enjoy if they know anything about the Lord," he says. "If they don't know anything about the Lord, then they won't enjoy it at all. But if you know anything or have heard anything, then you will. Because it's the same thing as rock 'n' roll. There ain't no difference."

The Blind Boys' current spate of nightclub appearances grew out of the group's involvement in a Broadway musical entitled The Gospel at Colonus. Director Lee Breuer's adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus merged Greek tragedy with music of the black church. It was a concept that received mixed reviews. But critics raved about the Blind Boys' collective contribution and about Fountain's impassioned singing in his role as a sightless, exiled Oedipus. That led to a series of sold-out appearances in New York clubs last June and, more recently, a return to club work nationally. Fountain's perspective on bar shows seems shaped by both spiritual and pragmatic motives.

"I feel like, playin' in clubs, you never know who you might save," he says. "You know they say the church is in the heart of man; it's not just a building. In a way, I think I get better results from the clubs, because you're bringing something to the club that's never been there before, and you never know who you might make feel good. I know we were in a club in San Jose, man, people were cryin' and goin' through a thing! And I said, `Well, hmm, at least we helped somebody!'"

But the club market offers opportunities for more than just spiritual development, a fact that isn't lost on Fountain. Unlike the audience for the group's church appearances, the crowds for the Blind Boys' club shows are largely white. "That's what makes it so good," he says. "The white market hasn't been exposed to gospel as a whole. Last year I think they sold two billion dollars' worth of gospel music. So somebody--it can't just be blacks, it's got to be whites, too--somebody's buying a lot of gospel music." When asked if he'd like to reach that audience, Fountain is blunt. "Of course," he says.

Performing gospel music for nightclub crowds has necessitated a few changes, Fountain says. "We sing a couple tunes the folks know, like `You'll Never Walk Alone.'" But the basic approach to working an audience remains the same.

"You go along, you go along, and you sing along, you sing along, until you're ready to close out, then you hit 'em!" he explains. "That's my philosophy, and I've come out pretty good! When you know you're goin' off the stage, then you really put your best down. You know you'll get called back so that's no problem, but you hold that back till the last. Then you go for broke!"

The theatre sense that Fountain describes is one of the most valuable contributions gospel music has made to the rest of black music. It dictates the pacing and drive of soul and blues music as surely as it propels gospel. It's no coincidence that virtually every major blues, soul and R&B artist in the business credits gospel music as a major inspiration. Most listeners are aware of popular music's gospel connection, but according to Clarence Fountain, few of them have really heard the real thing. He thinks it's time they did.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Cantrell