The Blind Boys of Alabama
|Blind Boys of Alabama|
Blind Boys of Alabama performing at the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival in 2011
|Origin||Alabama, United States|
The Blind Boys of Alabama is a five-time Grammy Award winning gospel group who first sang together in 1939. The Blind Boys toured for seven decades, and created an extensive discography. In 2016 the on-stage configuration of the group consists of seven people: three blind singers—Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, guitarist and musical director, Joey Williams, and a keyboard player, a bass player, and a drummer.
The Blind Boys of Alabama sing mainly spiritually uplifting songs, as well as giving encouragement to those with disabilities. In the words of one of the group’s blind members, Ricky Mckinnie, “Our disability doesn’t have to be a handicap. It's not about what you can't do. It's about what you do. And what we do is sing good gospel music."
1930s–1940s: Meeting and formation
The Blind Boys of Alabama first sang together in the school chorus in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama. All around nine years old at the time, the founding members were Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, George Scott, Velma Bozman Traylor, Johnny Fields, Olice Thomas, and the only sighted member, J. T. Hutton. The earliest version of the group was known as “The Happyland Jubilee Singers” and originally performed for World War II-era soldiers at training camps in the South. The group’s first professional performance was on June 10, 1944. In 1945, the members dropped out of school and began touring the gospel circuit.
In 1948, a Newark, New Jersey promoter booked two sets of blind gospel singers - the Happy Land Jubilee Singers from Alabama and the Jackson Harmoneers from Mississippi - and advertised the program as "Battle of the Blind Boys." A friendly rivalry sprouted between the two groups and continued henceforth. The two acts soon changed their names to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and often toured together, occasionally swapping members. In 1948, The Blind Boys recorded their first single, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine” on the Veejay label. It was a hit and lead to a series of recordings on various record labels.
1950s: The Black Gospel Years
During the 1950s black gospel music was popular, and the Blind Boys were one of the better known groups. Artists from pop and rock genres began to include aspects of black gospel music in their arrangements.
1960s–1970s: Staying true to their roots
During the 60’s and 70’s, soul music gained favor as a new type of secular black music. As a traditional gospel group, the fortunes of The Blind Boys of Alabama waned during these decades. Soul music was spiritual and socially engaged pop music, and its sales soon exceeded those of its gospel forerunners. Although soul music became a more financially successful route for many gospel artists, the Blind Boys of Alabama remained purely gospel singers.
In spite of shifting societal trends, The Blind Boys continued to be active in the 1960’s and 1970’s, releasing thirteen more albums through several labels, including the Vee-Jay label from 1963 to 1965. In the 1960s, the group's hard-driving gospel sound was imitated by people like Bobby "Blue" Bland and Marvin Gaye. In 1969, Fountain left the group for a decade to try to make it on his own, and the group re-formed with all the original members in the late '70s.
Up until this point, the Blind Boys of Alabama had primarily played for black church audiences. The group performed at the World's Fair in Knoxville in 1982 and again in 1983. At that time the Five Blind Boys of Alabama began appearing collectively as Oedipus in the musical theater production "The Gospel at Colonus." The play was acclaimed as a landmark in American Musical History, receiving two OBIE Awards and nominations for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. This production brought the Blind Boys to the attention of a mainstream audience. With this exposure, the Blind Boys began working in several genres and alongside more popular artists.
The Blind Boys released an album, Deep River in 1992, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. The album was produced by Booker T. Jones, and featured a version of Bob Dylan's "I Believe In You." The Blind Boys continued experimenting with contemporary popular music with 1995's live album I Brought Him With Me and 1997's funk-leaning Holding On.
2000s: Grammy era
"Free at last"
Blind Boys of Alabama perform "Free At Last" at the White House on February 9th 2010, at a celebration of music from the Civil Rights movement
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At the turn of the 21st century, the Blind Boys began working on the album Spirit of the Century, which was the brainchild of their long-time booking agent Chris Goldsmith. Goldsmith was credited as executive producer on the album and John Chelew was the producer, a partnership that went on to produce several more albums for the Blind Boys.
Spirit of the Century was the Blind Boys’ most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album to date. The album is a blend of gospel, blues, soul and folk and won the 2001 Grammy award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Several guest musicians were featured alongside the Blind Boys on this record, including multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, blues guitarist John Hammond, contra bassist Danny Thompson and harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite.
The album was released on Peter Gabriel’s label, Real World Records. The Blind Boys’ relationship with Peter Gabriel was also a stepping stone to their appearance on his 2002 album, Up, and they subsequently opened for Gabriel on the ‘Growing Up’ worldwide arena tour.
The CBS series, “60 Minutes II” filmed a documentary segment featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2002. Dan Rather told the story of the Blind Boys through an interview with the remaining founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter,and George Scott.
The Blind Boys' version of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole," featured on Spirit of the Century, also became the theme song for the first year of the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, and their song "Soldier," was featured in the 2002 film The Fighting Temptations, featuring Beyonce and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The Blind Boys enjoyed further acclaim and another Grammy with 2002's soul music-influenced Higher Ground (Real World), which was also produced by the Chelew/Goldsmith team, and included songs written by Prince, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Ben Harper (who also appeared on the album lending vocals and guitar). Robert Randolph and his Family Band served as the backing musicians on the album. The song “I Shall Not Walk Alone” from the album was featured in the first season of the TV series Lost in the episode “Confidence Man”.
That same year, The Blind Boys, who at this time consisted of Clarence Fountain, George Scott, Jimmy Carter, Joey Williams, Eric McKinnie, Bobby Butler and Tracy Pierce, were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. They also won a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
In 2003, The Blind Boys released a Christmas album, Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World). Again the production was credited to Chelew and Goldsmith, and again the album scored a Grammy – the band’s third in a row. The album featured an eclectic collection of guests including Tom Waits, Solomon Burke, Michael Franti, Chrissie Hynde, Aaron Neville, Shelby Lynne, George Clinton, Mavis Staples and Les McCann.
The release of this Christmas album was followed in 2004 by a DVD documenting the Blind Boys concert at New York’s Beacon Theater in December 2003. Go Tell It On the Mountain: Live in New York highlights special guests at the show, including Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Chrissie Hynde, John Medeski, Robert Randolph, and Michael Franti. A portion of the proceeds from Go Tell It On the Mountain were donated to the American Diabetes Association, for whom the Blind Boys became spokesmen in 2003.
In 2004, The Blind Boys of Alabama collaborated with Ben Harper on the album There Will Be a Light (Virgin). Harper produced the album, with Chris Goldsmith again serving as executive producer. Harper described the record as “a spiritual soul movement”. There Will Be a Light was nominated for three GRAMMYs that year and won two, including the Blind Boys fourth consecutive win for Traditional Soul Gospel Album. The record was also the first Blind Boys album to break into the Billboard Top 100.
In 2005, The Blind Boys released what was arguably the most adventurous album of their discography thus far. Produced by John Chelew, Atom Bomb is unmistakably traditional gospel, yet it featured pop influences, rap, and roaring blues riffs. The record includes a gospel version of the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray tune "Demons," featuring rapper Gift of Gab from Blackalicious. Musicians also featured on Atom Bomb: Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, Blues harp icon Charlie Musselwhite, and the legendary Billy Preston on keyboard.
In May 2005, Dan Rather presented The Blind Boys of Alabama with The American Foundation for the Blind's distinguished Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award, presented to individuals and organizations that have improved the quality of life for people who are blind, visually impaired or disabled. Past recipients include Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Jose Feliciano.
The Blind Boys were presented with a second prestigious award in May 2005. Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan presented the Blind Boys with the First Niarchos Prize for Survivorship. The Landmine Survivors Network awards this prize to an artist whose life work promotes resiliency and recovery.
Also in 2005, The Blind Boys were featured on the Grammy telecast alongside Kanye West, John Legend, and Mavis Staples.
In March 2006, the group's baritone singer George Scott passed away at age 75.
In January 2008, The Blind Boys of Alabama released Down In New Orleans on the Time Life record label. Produced by Chris Goldsmith, the album featured New Orleans-style music and included guests Allen Toussaint, The Hot 8 Brass Band, and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
In 2009 the band released the Live in New Orleans DVD featuring their sold-out performance in the Crescent City’s iconic club Tipitina’s with special guests that included Susan Tedeschi and New Orleans pianist Henry Butler.
Also in 2009, the Blind Boys also won their fifth Grammy for best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for Down in New Orleans. They were also given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for their long history of influential recorded work.
The Blind Boys of Alabama were featured artists in “Soundtrack for a Revolution”, a documentary released in 2009. The film tells the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music. The members of the Blind Boys felt a strong connection to this project because of their roots in the strongly segregated South.
In October 2009, the Blind Boys released the album Duets (Time Life), a special anthology featuring 14 unique collaborations. This album documented the rich,eclectic and cohesive interactions between the Blind Boys and popular artists. The music on Duets ranges from rock to reggae, country to contemporary Christian, and blues to ballads, all unified by the Blind Boys’ deep, soulful harmonizing. Most of the tracks were previously released, but the album also featured unreleased tracks with guest artists Lou Reed, John Hammond and Toots Hibbert – as well as a new song with Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles that was released on his album simultaneously.The album includes previously released performances with Ben Harper, Randy Travis, Bonnie Raitt, Solomon Burke, Susan Tedeschi, Jars of Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Asleep At The Wheel, and Dan Zanes. In January 2010, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Lou Reed appeared together on Late Night with David Letterman. They performed the song “Jesus,” which was written by Lou Reed and originally appeared on an early Velvet Underground album.
The Blind Boys of Alabama were asked to curate and perform at a three-night concert series in July 2010 at the Lincoln Center Festival. The series featured performances from numerous musicians across several genres. Special guests included Yo La Tengo, Ralph Stanley, Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket, Yonder Mountain String Band, Ray Benson, Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel, Aaron Neville, Joan Osborne, Hot 8 Brass Band, Dan Zanes, John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite, and more.
In February 2010, The Blind Boys of Alabama were a part of the concert series, “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Movement”. Hosted by President and Mrs. Obama, the event included performances by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Natalie Cole, and Smokey Robinson. 2010 was not the Blind Boys’ first visit to the White House. The gospel group was invited by President Clinton in 1994 and President Bush in 2002.
Later that year, the Blind Boys met fellow Alabaman Jamey Johnson at the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. Jimmy Carter had always been a fan of country music, so the Blind Boys asked Johnson to help produce a country-gospel album. In May 2011, The Blind Boys released Take The High Road (Saguaro Road), co-produced by Johnson, Chris Goldsmith, Kevin ‘Swine’ Grantt and Chad Cromwell. The album featured collaborations with prominent country artists Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson and The Oak Ridge Boys.
In January 2012, The Blind Boys were featured as part of Preservation Hall Jazz Band's 50th Anniversary performance at Carnegie Hall along with artists Trombone Shorty and Allen Toussaint.
Dr. John invited the Blind Boys to join him onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House for “Insides Out: A Louis Armstrong Tribute Concert” in March 2012. Backed up by several New Orleans-based instrumentalists, the Blind Boys of Alabama helped begin and end the March 29th show with powerful versions of “What a Wonderful World” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
In April 2012, the group helped celebrate Amnesty International's 50 years of fighting for freedom and human rights, by joining more than 50 artists from around the world to collaborate on the tune "Toast To Freedom." The song was produced by Bob Clearmountain, recorded at the late Levon Helm's studios, and includes artists such as Keb Mo, Carly Simon, Kris Kristofferson, Levon Helm, Roseanne Cash, Taj Mahal, Warren Haynes and others.
A testament to the Blind Boys of Alabama’s transition to a high-profile mainstream act is the many television appearances they made in this decade. The Blind Boys reached a much broader audience by appearing on 60 Minutes II, Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Today Show, CBS Saturday Morning and Austin City Limits.
Awards and honors
- 2002 – Grammy in Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for Spirit of the Century
- 2003 – Grammy in Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for Higher Ground
- 2003 – Gospel Music Hall of Fame induction
- 2003 – Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association in Traditional Gospel Album of the Year for Higher Ground
- 2004 – Grammy in Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for Go Tell It On the Mountain
- 2005 – Grammy in Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for There Will Be a Light
- 2005 – Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind
- 2005 – First Niarchos Prize for Survivorship from Her Majesty, Queen Noor of Jordan through The Landmine Survivors Network
- 2006 – Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association in Traditional Gospel Album of the Year for Atom Bomb
- 2009 – Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association in Traditional Gospel Album of the Year for Down in New Orleans
- 2009 – Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association in Traditional Gospel Recorded Song of the Year for "Free At Last"
- 2009 – Grammy in Best Traditional Gospel Album for Down in New Orleans
- 2009 – Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2010 – Alabama Music Hall of Fame induction
- Three U.S. Presidential administrations have invited the Blind Boys to the White House: President Clinton in 1994, President George W. Bush in 2002, and President Obama in 2010.
- Jimmy Carter – vocals
- Ben Moore – vocals
- Eric "Ricky" McKinnie – drums, percussion, vocals
- Joey Williams – lead guitar, vocals
- Trae Pierce – bass
- Peter Levin – organ
- Clarence Fountain – tours with the group as his health allows
- Paul Beasley – vocals
- Jimmy Carter – vocals
- Clarence Fountain – vocals
- Johnny Fields (deceased) – vocals
- George Scott (deceased) – vocals
- Olice Thomas (deceased) – vocals
- Vel Bozman Traylor (deceased) – vocals
- Bishop Billy Bowers (deceased, July 2, 2013) – vocals
- Caleb Butler – rhythm guitar
- Samuel Butler Jr – rhythm guitar, songwriter and arranger, manager, second lead singer
- Roscoe Robinson – lead vocals
- Charles Porter - vocals
- Lamont Blount (deceased) – band manager
- 1948 I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine – Coleman Records
- 1950 Sweet Honey in the Rocks – Palda Records
- 1950 Livin' On Mother's Prayers – Palda Records
- 1950 Come Over Here The Table Spread – Palda Records
- 1953 The Sermon
- 1953 When I Lost My Mother – Specialty Records
- 1954 Marching Up To Zion – Specialty Records
- 1954 Oh Lord, Stand By Me – Specialty Records
- 1958 My Mother's Train – Vee Jay Records
- 1959 God is On the Throne – Savoy Records
- 1959 The Original Blind Boys – Savoy Records
- 1963 (1957) You'll Never Walk Alone – HOB Records
- 1963 Old Time Religion – HOB Records
- 1963 True Convictions – HOB Records
- 1965 Can I Get a Witness? – HOB Records
- 1967 Church Concert in New Orleans (Live) – HOB Records
- 1969 Fix it Jesus Like You Said You Would – Keen Records
- 1969 Jesus Will Be Waiting
- 1970 In the Gospel Light
- 1970 The Five Blind Boys From Alabama
- 1970 The Soul of Clarence Fountain
- 1973 Best of Five Blind Boys of Alabama
- 1974 Precious Memories
- 1978 The Soldier Album – PIR Records
- 1981 Faith Moves Mountains – Messiah Records
- 1987 In the Hands of the Lord
- 1989 I'm a Changed Man – Wajji Records
- 1989 The Five Blind Boys of Alabama
- 1990 Brand New – Wajji Records
- 1990 I'm Not That Way Anymore – Atlanta International Records
- 1991 I am a Soldier
- 1991 Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion
- 1991 The Best of the Five Blind Boys
- 1992 Deep River – Elektra/Nonesuch Records
- 1993 Bridge Over Troubled Waters
- 1994 Alive in Person
- 1994 Blessed Assurance
- 1994 Don't Forget To Pray
- 1994 In the Gospel Light
- 1994 Soul Gospel
- 1994 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- 1995 1948-51
- 1995 I Brought Him With Me – House of Blues Music Company
- 1996 All Things Are Possible
- 1996 Golden Mements in Gospel
- 1997 Holdin' On – House of Blues Music Company
- 1998 Have Faith: The Very Best of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama
- 1999 Best of Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama
- 1999 Hallelujah: A Collection of Their Finest
- 2000 My Lord What a Morning
- 2001 Spirit of the Century – Real World Records
- 2001 You'll Never Walk Alone / True Convictions (reissue)
- 2002 Higher Ground - Real World Records
- 2003 Amazing Grace
- 2003 Go Tell it On the Mountain – Real World Records
- 2004 There Will Be a Light (with Ben Harper) – Virgin Records
- 2005 Live at the Apollo (with Ben Harper)
- 2005 Atom Bomb – Real World Records
- 2006 Just a Closer Walk with Thee, a compilation of work ranging from the years 1963–1965
- 2008 Down in New Orleans – TimeLife – Grammy winner
- 2009 Enlightnement – The Great American Music Co. (2 CDs)
- 2009 Duets (compilation of collaborations with other artists) Saguaro Road Records
- 2010 Faith Moves Mountains (reissue)
- 2011 Take the High Road – Saguaro Road Records
- 2013 I'll Find a Way – Sony Masterworks
- 2014 Talkin' Christmas! (with Taj Mahal) – Sony Masterworks
- 2002 – Lifted: Songs of the Spirit – "Freedom Road"
- 2002 – WYEP Live and Direct: Volume 4 - On Air Performances – "Amazing Grace"
- 2002 – Solomon Burke : Don't Give Up On Me – "None of Us Are Free"
- 2003 – Brother Bear: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack – "Welcome" with Phil Collins and Oren Waters
- 2007 – Song of America – "Let Us Break Bread Together"
- 2014 – Songs from a Stolen Spring – "Freedom"
- 2016 – God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson – "Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time"
Musical artists the Blind Boys of Alabama have collaborated with include:
Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Michael Franti, Chrissie Hynde, Richard Thompson, Aaron Neville, Mavis Stables, Shelby Lynne, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Danny Thompson, Duke Robillard, Michael Jerome, George Clinton, Robert Randolph, Les McCann, David Hidalgo, Charlie Musselwhite, Gift of Gab from Blackalicious, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill, Leann Womack, Oak Ridge Boys, Jamey Johnson, Ben Harper, Susan Tedeschi, Toots Hibbert, Randy Travis, Timothy B. Schmit, Bonnie Raitt, Jars of Clay, Dan Zanes, Lou Reed, Marva Wright, Asleep At The Wheel, John Hammond, Allen Toussaint, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Hot 8 Brass Band, Bennie Pete, Carl LeBlanc, Billy Preston, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Prince (musician), The Time Jumpers, K.D. Lang, Dr. John, Henry Butler, Joan Osborne, Third Day, Yo La Tengo, Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket, Yonder Mountain String Band, Ray Benson, Ibrahim Ferrer
- 2002 for Spirit of the Century
- 2003 for Higher Ground
- 2004 for Go Tell it On the Mountain
- 2005 for There Will Be a Light
- 2009 for Down in New Orleans
- 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award
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- "The Blind Boys of Alabama World Café Live / Philadelphia, PA". Elmore Magazine, August 29th, 2016. Geno Thackara.
- Jurek, Thom. The Blind Boys of Alabama: I'll Find a Way at AllMusic. Retrieved August 10, 2015.
- Jurek, Thom. "Various Artists: God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson". AllMusic.com. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
- Stambler, Irwin & Lyndon. (2001) Folk & Blues:The Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. New York. St. Martin's Press. 40-41. ISBN 0-312-20057-9
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