Blind Boys have kept the faith for 60 years

April 01, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

When gospel music fans settle into their seats at Lisner Auditorium tomorrow night, they won't spend much time sitting on their hands. Clarence Fountain says he'll get them involved - quickly.

"Audiences are all alike," says Fountain, leader of the legendary gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, currently touring in support of their new CD, Atom Bomb. "Scripture says people are like unto sheep, easily led astray. I'm not going to lead them astray, exactly, but I'll get their minds off where they came from before they know it."

Fountain, 73, knows whereof he speaks. Sixty-five years ago, when his parents dropped him off at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in rural Talladega, he didn't take to the harshness of the teachers there any better than did the handful of other 7-year-olds who started out at the same time he did. But he met other sightless boys who enjoyed singing gospel music. Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott got together when time allowed and rehearsed a few songs they'd all heard growing up in good Christian homes.

Three years later, as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, they set off for points unknown in a sighted friend's 1939 Buick. "Nobody ever told us we were good," says Fountain. "We just hoped we wouldn't have to go back."

They didn't. As they toured churches and concert halls mostly across the South, their tight harmonies and emotionally stirring performances made them a sensation. When a promoter pitted them on a concert bill against an all-sightless band from a neighboring state, they became the Blind Boys of Alabama. (No one knows what became of the Blind Boys of Mississippi.)

"You have no idea what path you're going to end up on," Fountain says in a phone interview. "But if you seek the Lord first, he'll do the rest."

Such faith is at the heart of the Blind Boys' performances and their career choices as well. Through the 1950s, they kept their focus on pure gospel, resisting the rock producers who could have made them rich.

In 1992, their cover of a Dylan tune, "I Believe in You," began a chapter in which they set a new standard for gospelizing contemporary artists, including Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin. "You change `I love you, baby,' to `I love you, Lord,' and you're in business," Fountain says with a laugh. The group's haunting version of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" became the theme song for HBO's Baltimore-based series The Wire. Their 2001 album Spirit of the Century became the first in a string of four straight Grammy Award winners for traditional soul gospel album. Since then, they've toured every place from "Japan to Russia to Holland and France," says Fountain. The scenery doesn't mean as much to him as it does to the four newer members, all sighted, but the wider exposure alone is worth all the travel. "Our message is going out everywhere now," he says.

The death of Scott last month devastated Fountain, but he tries to stay thankful. "It was a blessing to have him as long as we did," he says.

"When the Lord takes something from you, sometimes his plan is to give you something even better. The question is, what are you going to do with it? Think about that, won't you?"

In Concert

What: The Blind Boys of Alabama, with blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite

When: 8 p.m. Saturday,

Where: Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University, 730 21st St. N.W., Washington

Tickets: $25-$45

Call: Lisner box office, 202-994-6800; PhoneCharge, 301-808-6900

Online: lisner.org; ticketmaster.com

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