Not many musical acts can forge ahead after half a century together without some flashy media makeover. But after more than 60 years of testifyin,' the Blind Boys of Alabama are still ready to spread the word.
The boys met as students at the Talladega Institute for the Blind in 1939. "We used to listen to gospel on the radio," remembers founding member Clarence Fountain. "Then we decided to form our own group. There were originally six of us, and we did a show with another blind group from Mississippi in 1948. It was billed as a contest between the blind boys of Alabama and the blind boys of Mississippi, and the name just stuck." Fountain, along with cofounders Jimmy Carter and George Scott, remain the only original members of the group. They aren't exactly boys anymore, but their music has weathered the fickle tastes and exploitative fervor of the industry.
Spirit of the Century, the group's 2001 Grammy-winning album, resurrects covers of Tom Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here," while their new release, Higher Ground, puts the fear of God into Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and Prince's "The Cross." "We try to add a gospel touch to all the songs we do," Fountain says of their artistic choices. "If the song has good words and a good vibe, we do what needs to be done." Fountain and company have succeeded in taking their music out of the pews and into the mainstream, but they haven't forgotten their roots. "We could have turned our music into rock 'n' roll," Fountain says. "But we stuck with what we knew, and we're damn good at it. The Lord has blessed us." And if Fountain says Jesus is coming back soon, you better start looking busy.