Tom Waits and Ben Harper have written songs for them. They've recorded songs by Prince, Stevie Wonder and George Clinton. But since they left the Talladega Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in 1944 and hit the road singing, there's only been one path for The Blind Boys of Alabama to follow. "If they want The Blind Boys to do something for them, it has to be gospel--that's all," says Blind Boy vocalist Jimmy Carter. The group made their reputation in cutting contests across the country, out-singing any other group that promoters put up against them. Lead singer Clarence Fountain was adept at the jubilee style of gospel, which Carter says was the forerunner of rap. "The only difference is we talk rap and we sing jubilee." When the call and response style of quartet singing became popular in the late '40s, Fountain's voice overshadowed all comers in that field as well.
It wasn't long before the secular world came calling. The Blind Boys and gospel crossover artists Sam Cooke and Little Richard were both working for Specialty records in the '50s, when Richard's manager/producer Bumps Blackwell tried to recruit them. "When Sam Cooke and Little Richard crossed over, they approached The Blind Boys to do it at the same time," Carter says, "but The Blind Boys turned it down. We would never deviate from what we started out doing because God has been too good to us."
But as the years went on, the group found their audience dwindling. Fountain left the group in 1969 for a solo career. They were reunited in 1981 by a Broadway version of a classic Greek tragedy. Oedipus Rex was re-written as an African-American church service, with Morgan Freeman as the preacher and Fountain as Oedipus. The production's authors were Blind Boy fans and wrote them into the play. "They needed a blind man to play Oedipus, who went with his mother and stuff like that, and they got me," Fountain says of his role. "It was strange, but it was a privilege," Carter says, "because it opened many doors for us. Before then, mostly we were just singing to predominantly black audiences. But after we went on Broadway, and we were introduced to another market. And what we found out was that the other market wanted us all the time. And we said well, we ought to give it to 'em."
The Blind Boys started giving it to 'em with '92s Deep River, produced by organist Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & The MG's. It won a Grammy for the cover of Dylan's "I Believe in You."
Spirit of the Century, released in 2001, defied the conventions of traditional gospel with the inclusion of the Stones' "The Last Time," which The Blind Boys had cut while with Specialty. "They can just take tunes and steal 'em, so we stole some of their stuff, the same thing they were doing to us," Fountain says. The record also features a Tom Waits tune.
The Grammy-winning '02 release Higher Ground features the Stevie Wonder title cut as well as songs by George Clinton, Ben Harper and Prince. "We could relate to it," Carter says of the Prince cut. "'The Cross'--we'll do that, that's all right there."
Ben Harper also meets with The Blind Boys' approval. "He's a good writer," Carter says. "He knows about gospel--he came out of the church." Their collaboration with Harper, There Will Be a Light, has been nominated for three Grammys for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album, Best Gospel Performance for the title track, and Harper for Best Pop Instrumental for his song "11th Commandment."
Despite the fact that they're used to being the featured act, Carter says it wasn't difficult to sing background for Harper. "His songs are good, but they're very simple, they're simple for us to do, so it wasn't hard for us to sing background for him or for anyone else. When you can sing, you supposed to be able to do all that anyway," he says. The only problem with the record is that at times you wonder why The Blind Boys were kept in the background. "I wondered that too sometimes. But that's the way it was. We'll get a chance. He loves The Blind Boys and we love him, so I think there'll be another project coming out with the two of us."
For the next project, Carter and The Blind Boys are thinking of a different direction. The band discovered yet another market with the enthusiastic reception they got opening for Merle Haggard. "We finally did a Christmas album, so I think the next project will be a country gospel album." Carter already has a couple of Eddie Arnold songs picked out for the project.
But whatever else he does, Carter wants to be remembered by letting people know about Jesus Christ. "I don't want them to come to The Blind Boys' concert and go back the same way they came. If they come sad, I want them to go back happy. If they come happy, I want them to go back happier. I want to be remembered as someone who radiated the gospel to the audience that came to see me."
The Blind Boys of Alabama appear at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hill Hall Monday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 general public, $22 students; call 962-1449.