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Blind Boys of Alabama

The gospel according to the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama are in Ireland, but Clarence Fountain is stuck in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. The septuagenarian founder of the legendary gospel vocal group recently came down with a case of pneumonia and had to take a break from the band's European tour.

"I got sick before they went and I couldn't go," Fountain says in a voice gruff and raspy enough to make Tom Waits blanch. "I'm better, but I'm still a little weak. I've got to wait three or four more days before I make a move."

It seems that illness is about the only means for Fountain to get himself some rest these days. As reigning international ambassadors for the deep gospel traditional sound, the Blind Boys find themselves constantly in demand. Within the last few months, the group contributed to the soundtrack for the animated children's film Brother Bear, appeared in the Cuba Gooding Jr. gospel showcase The Fighting Temptations, and issued Go Tell It On the Mountain, the first Christmas album of their six-decade career. In addition, they continue to maintain a demanding touring schedule that Fountain semi-seriously calls "too much."

Fountain is a dedicated pragmatist, however, and after scraping by for more than 40 years on the gospel circuit, he feels no qualms about the mass-market success the Blind Boys have courted since their 1983 breakthrough role in the hit stage musical, Gospel at Colonus. Lee Breuer, Colonus' director, actually devised the musical's eccentric combination of Greek tragedy and black church service after attending a Blind Boys concert.

"That was just a piece of luck," Fountain says about his group's role in Colonus. "This guy had this play and he took it overseas and lost a pile of money. We sat down and put our minds together musically and put that play together. We went out to Minnesota and stayed for six weeks in rehearsal and got it going good. And we never dreamed that it would do the things it has done. For our career, it was a blessing, a God-sent thing that was just right for the Blind Boys."

The Blind Boys' three surviving original members - Fountain, George Scott, and Jimmy Carter - started singing together in 1939, as students at the Talladega Institute for the Blind in Alabama. They sang together in the school choir and shared a love for popular gospel groups like the Golden Gate Quartet. In 1944, while barely in their teens, they hit the road and built a solid following in a musical field that gradually shrank as its secular cousins - R&B and rock 'n' roll - captivated the youth of America.

Blind Boys Of Alabama
Saturday, December 6
224-9600 or
Empire Theatre
226 N. St. Mary's
On the heels of Colonus, however, the Blind Boys tapped into a growing cultural fascination with archival American music. The same (predominantly upscale white) audience later drawn to the vintage bluegrass of O Brother, Where Art Thou? connected with the evangelical authenticity of the Blind Boys' harmonies.

In 1992, with the production guidance of Stax soul heavyweight Booker T. Jones, they hit on an approach that has defined their subsequent work. Mixing traditional tunes with spiritually themed rock songs, they drove home the point that rock 'n' roll and R&B owed everything - from its rhythmic drive to its soul-raising fervor - to early gospel music. In this context, songs like Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You" or Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" sounded like full-on gospel classics.

"What I always thought in my mind about our career was to be acceptable to the gospel field, so what you have to do is sing songs that are not gospel, but they're close," Fountain says. "I've always thought we could do anything when it comes down to singing. We just have to be careful with what the song depicts and the way the lyrics are structured. Pick the best of the best and sing it with feeling and inspiration so somebody else can see you and feel the same way you do."

This ongoing history lesson peaked in 2001 with the Blind Boys' Spirit of the Century album, which includes two songs by Tom Waits, one by Ben Harper, and a stunning interpretation of the Rolling Stones' "Just Wanna See His Face." The group followed that track with an album-closing, a cappella treatment of the traditional soul stirrer, "The Last Time," an obvious model for the Stones' song with the same title. While educating latecomers on where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got their source material, the Blind Boys also offered a perfect illustration of how gospel music became secularized.

"It made me laugh," Fountain says. "'You mean this is the Rolling Stones?' But the Rolling Stones got that version from us. 'Cause we put it out first. That lets you know that music is music. You've got to be careful, because you don't know until you really get down to the nitty gritty, which one is the original, until you listen to the lyrics."

As Fountain regains his strength for the group's Christmas tour, he offers a guarantee for those planning to see the Blind Boys at the Empire Theatre on Saturday, December 6.

"I'm going back to the doctor to see what he says," Fountain says. "But I'll be in San Antonio for sure." •

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