After performing more than 70 years, The Blind Boys of Alabama stay motivated, true to gospel music.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, a five-time Grammy Award-winning gospel septet, just celebrated their 70th anniversary of giving fans rousing performances of their austral-style music and will be performing in the James Moncus Theater at the Acadiana Center of the Arts on Friday, June 27.
The Boys’ fan base has varied over age, racial and musical boundaries and has multiplied in recent years. Covering songs by Prince, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, the group successfully melds gospel music with rhythm and blues, soul and country. Their latest album, I’ll Find a Way, released on Oct. 1, 2013, finds the Boys collaborating with several indie rock artists along with producer and Bon Iver lead singer Justin Vernon.
“It was a great experience,” says Jimmy Carter, 85, lead singer and founding member. “I have to admit, we were a bit embarrassed. Our manager asked if we wanted to do a project with Justin. We had never heard of him. We went to Wisconsin and got to know him. He had a warm home and a warm heart.”
Carter and Merrill Garbus, lead singer of Tune-Yards, performed the titular track, a cover of Detroit musician Ted Lucas’ song of the same name; Lucas passed away in 1992. Other collaborations included Casey Dienel of White Hinterland and Vernon himself, duetting with Carter, covering Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”
The current touring lineup of the Boys includes Carter, Paul Beasley, Eric McKinnie, Ben Moore, Austin Moore (no relation), Joey Williams and Ben Odom. Carter, Beasley, McKinnie and Ben Moore are the only members of the group who are blind. Clarence Fountain, another founder and erstwhile leader of the Boys, no longer tours because of health restrictions.
The Boys’ first professional performance was in 1944. Carter and Fountain, with Velma Bozman Traylor, George Scott, Olice Thomas and Johnny Fields, all age 9, began performing in 1939 in the glee club at the Alabama Institute of the Negro Blind, now the Alabama Institute of the Deaf and Blind.
Billed as The Happy Land Jubilee Singers in the early years, the Boys dropped out of school at 14 and performed at World War II training camps in the South. During the 1960s and 1970s, gospel music and the group’s popularity began to wane as other artists moved to R&B. The Boys, however, refused to sever themselves from their upbringing.
“We were brought up in a Christian environment,” states Carter. “Our parents were God-fearing people and they brought us up in a Christian home. We would not deviate from our teachings. We are not perfect, but we’re Christian.”
The Boys’ history also includes the dismal period in U.S. history known as the Jim Crow era, when laws were created to enforce racial segregation in public places. These laws were abolished in 1965. Carter explained although it was difficult, it would not keep the Boys from doing what he says he believed they were destined to do.
“It was hard. If we did a program, when you got through, you were hungry. We couldn’t eat anywhere so we ate bread and bologna sandwiches!” Carter exclaims lightheartedly. “But we were determined to sing, no matter what.”
The Boys were pushed into mainstream attention with their 1983 role as Odeipus in The Gospel of Colonus, the gospel version of the Sophocles’ tragedy. From 2002 to 2005, the Boys won four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. They won their fifth Grammy for the same category along with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2009.
“We love what we do,” declares an elated Carter. “We love to sing gospel music. When you love what you do, it keeps you motivated. We try to bring those who don’t have hope, who are discouraged; there is a God you can turn to.”