Blind Boys Still Singing the Gospel

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on May 7, 2006

You might say that, for two sightless men, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter sure have seen a lot. They've been traveling together for 62 years as co-founders of the renowned Blind Boys of Alabama gospel group.

"We're like a wagon wheel," says Fountain, 77, a native of Tyler, Ala. (pop. 1,498) "We just keep rolling along."

And that wheel has rolled further than anyone ever dreamed. The Blind Boys represent one of the most enduring partnerships in American music history, and one that involved overcoming enormous physical and racial obstacles.

The two men met when Carter, at age 7, stood with tears on his cheeks as his parents drove away after dropping him off at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega (pop. 15,143) in 1939. "I thought it was the end of the world," recalls the Birmingham native, who returned home only on holidays and for summer breaks.

However, the school opened up a new world for both men.

When Carter arrived, he joined the school choir and met Fountain, who'd already been at the institute for three years. As members of a glee club, they began mimicking the gospel harmonies they heard on the radio. Their talent and renown grew, and by 1944, joined by several other singing students, the group was performing on a Birmingham radio station.

By 1949, while still in their teens, the Blind Boys had a radio hit, "I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine," and began touring the country.

"We faced some problems," says Carter, 74. "We were dealing with the segregated South, and there was racism and what-not. But we were playing churches and theaters, and for the most part everyone was pretty nice to us."

By the 1950s, the Blind Boys were among the most popular of America's many gospel-singing groups. Their record company tried to persuade them to follow other stars—Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter—and drop religious themes to record songs for the larger pop market, but they refused.

"When we first came out, I told the Lord, 'If you bless me, I'll always work for you,'" Fountain recalls. "So I kept my promise to God. I couldn't turn my back on him after all he'd done for me."

Although never household names, the Blind Boys have remained at the top of their field. In the 1980s, they starred on Broadway in the musical Gospel at Colonus. In the '90s, they recorded with rock icons Peter Gabriel and Bonnie Raitt. They appeared at the 2005 Grammy Awards with rap star Kanye West, backing him on his hit "Jesus Walks." They've won four Grammys themselves, and this year the group has concerts scheduled all over the world, from Australia to Austria and back to America.

TV producer Steven Bochco, the producer of L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and Commander in Chief, created another show, Blind Justice, about a policeman blinded in the line of duty, after seeing the Blind Boys perform. "I was so moved by the trust that they all had in each other," says Bochco, recalling how the group took the stage—in single file, with each man's hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him.

Membership has evolved over the years, but Carter and Fountain remain the cornerstones. The present-day lineup includes Billie Bowers and Ricky McKinnie who also are blind, and Joey Williams, Bobby Butler and Tracy Pierce, who are not. The members are scattered across the Southeast, but come together to tour and record.

The group's most recent album, Atom Bomb, retools gospel standards such as "Talk About Suffering" and "Old Blind Barnabus" with spiritually inclined pop songs, including Norman Greenbaum's 1970s hit "Spirit in the Sky" and Eric Clapton's "Presence of the Lord."

"What we do is promote love, unity and finding strength through God," Carter says. "When you do that, what you do gives you strength to persevere. That's why we're still here."

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