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Gospel Paradise

Blind Boys of Alabama turn to secular world for inspiration

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"I didn't come here looking for Jesus," Blind Boys of Alabama front man Clarence Fountain tells audiences at the beginning of every show. "I brought him with me."

Fountain has been bringing his savior along on road trips since 1944 when he left the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind with a group of other inmates tired of making brooms. Since then, Fountain and his gospel colleagues have brought their soul-stirring gospel harmonies to audiences worldwide.

In the beginning, the Blind Boys worked mostly in churches throughout the South, depending upon the congregation to take up a collection for them. But Fountain soon found out that when you perform in churches, preachers often see to it that you don't get too much money. "That's his domain," Fountain chuckles. "Preachers say, "Well, we helped to build a lot of churches in our time.' Then when they get the churches built, and get everything going, they don't even want you to come in the door unless you come in and sit down and be a member and pay. That's how preachers are -- they got it all laid out."

The Blind Boys thought they could do better in the secular world. "Even if we've got a contract in hand, the churches don't want to sign one, so we'd rather go out and do as we're doing, singing, and know that we've got a contract and know that we're going to get paid."

Contract or not, the secular world didn't treat the group much better initially. The Blind Boys started recording in the 50s with considerable success, but like many other artists of the era, they were cheated out of royalties. But they got enough money to live comfortably, even if it meant staying on the road for extended tours.

They were offered a better way, but they thought their celestial road partner would not approve, nor would Fountain's conscience allow it. In 1957, the Blind Boys were recording for Specialty Records, home to a former gospel singer -- Sam Cooke -- and a future minister -- Little Richard. Bumps Blackwell, who had produced both Cooke and Richard, tried to get Fountain to cross over and sing rock & roll, telling him a fortune could be made in the new genre. "I couldn't do it," Fountain says. "Still I wouldn't do it. I'm still down in the hole. Broke and ain't got no money, and I still wouldn't do it. Because it doesn't profit a man anything to gain the world -- you can have a hotel full of money and lose your soul, you still ain't got nothin'. So I never did want to do that -- it didn't appeal to me."

But that didn't stop Fountain from becoming friends with and admiring Cooke, who he acknowledges was a pretty good songwriter as well as a singer. "What he had when he was singing gospel, he carried that over to the secular field and it came out right, because you can sing gospel and carry the same spirit over there to where the rock & roll people are, and that's why he was so good, because he didn't change nothing in his concerts or on his records."

That same approach and technique may explain why the Blind Boys have become so popular in recent years. Producer Booker T. Jones, organist for 60s soul band Booker T & the MG's -- the Stax house band who backed Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Rufus Thomas -- produced the Blind Boys' first attempt at merging contemporary and gospel music. The 1992 album Deep River included a version of Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You," the song that earned them their first Grammy nomination. The group continued to bring aspects of the secular world into their music with the Grammy-winning Spirit Of The Century in 2001, featuring tunes by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, as well as a version of "Amazing Grace" set to the melody of "House of The Rising Sun."

The Blind Boys did it again on "02's Higher Ground, which won another Grammy. The Stevie Wonder title cut features a Ben Harper wa-wa pedal guitar track and rocks as hard as Stevie's version. Mothership helmsman George Clinton is represented on "You and Your Folks / 23rd Psalm," with Blind Boy Jimmy Carter squalling as lustily as any P-Funkateer, while Fountain recites the 23rd Psalm as a gospelized Barry White, and Robert Randolph slides around on steel guitar in the background. Covers of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Prince's "The Cross" are included, and Harper sings his own "I Shall Not Walk Alone." But the most soul-stirring cut is Fountain's rendition of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," a better hymn than you'll hear in any house of worship.

The group's '03 Christmas album, Go Tell It On The Mountain, featured guest stars Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Tom Waits and Chrissie Hynde, and won the group their third consecutive Grammy.

Their latest collaboration with Harper, There Will Be a Light, has been nominated for two Grammys for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album and Best Gospel Performance for the title track. Harper was originally scheduled to do just two cuts on the Higher Ground album, but he hit it off well enough with the Blind Boys to finish off enough material for another album in just eight days, this one featuring mostly Harper originals. The only two covers are the gospel chestnut "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray" -- covered by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Loretta Lynn -- and "Satisfied Mind," a country classic recorded most notably by Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons.

In recent years, the Blind Boys have expanded their repertoire beyond their musical heritage. Since 1984, Fountain and the group have appeared on Broadway in the Gospel at Colonnus, where Fountain has portrayed Oedipus in various productions, the last in October-November of "04. The play, rewritten to take place in an African-American church, with Morgan Freeman as the preacher in an Obie-winning performance in the original production, still has the same touchy subject matter as the original. "That play was kind of messed up," Fountain says. "They needed a blind man to play Oedipus, who went with his mother and stuff like that, and they got me." But as Fountain sees it, the greater good of exposing gospel to a larger audience outweighs any potential problems with the Big Man upstairs. "The songs were alright and they weren't singing about "I got to kiss my baby and I got to hug her an' love her and treat her right' and do all that, and it wasn't about that, but it was a song, so I don't mind just singing a song."The way that the Blind Boys present their subject matter has played a big part in the group's success. When most gospel groups were still singing the traditional quartet style and harmonizing, Fountain adopted the jubilee style. "It's the same thing as rapping," Fountain says. "It's just rapping in tune. When the rappers of today rap, they rap not in tune. Just drop their voice down and rap -- it doesn't have a rhythm."

The Blind Boys still have three of their five original members: Fountain, Carter, and George Scott, and 60 years on the road haven't blunted their technique or power. Together, their combined voices have the power and majesty of a pipe organ. Fountain's crusty baritone still scampers nimbly up the scale when he unleashes a heartfelt wail, Scott can still bowl you over with a gospel blast, and although Carter looks frail enough to be blown away by an errant gust of wind, his circular breathing technique allows him to hold a gospel scream far beyond anything you'd think humanly possible. One of Carter's favorite tricks is to be lowered from the stage into the audience where he stands in the aisle and screams and spins until he brings the house down.

But all that stuff is just window dressing -- the eyes of the Blind Boys are still focused inward and upwards. Fountain carefully questioned producer John Chelew about the content and meaning of every song that had anything to do with the secular realm. Even Peter Gabriel, on whose Realworld label the Blind Boys have recorded their Grammy-winning albums, doesn't escape their scrutiny. "Peter Gabriel's coming out with a CD, and we backed him up," Fountain admits before adding a disclaimer. "But his songs are all about the birds and the bees and everything -- he ain't got me singing about the lowdown blues, so we backed him up on a couple of tunes."

Even though some are now calling the Blind Boys' sound contemporary, Fountain's career path and his faith never waver. "I don't have no kick against blues -- whoever want to sing blues, let "em sing it. But I've learnt in my growing up, the Lord says you can't serve two masters at one time. Gotta love one, and hate the other," Fountain says. "My part is serving the Lord."

The Blind Boys of Alabama play the Belk Theater Sunday at 8pm. Tickets are $25-$45 and are on sale at the Performing Arts Center Box Office -- 704-372-1000 -- or online at www.BlumenthalCenter.org.

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