By John Cody
OVER the past few years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have reached a level of popularity unprecedented in their six decades of performing. Since signing with Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint in 2001, the band has scored four consecutive Grammy wins – and experienced a significant increase in sales. All without major changes to their formula.
The core of the group – Clarence Fountain, George Scott and Jimmy Carter – first met in 1936, as students at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind; they began performing three years later. Scott retired from touring late last year, and passed away in March. His funeral was held March 15, the same day the group’s latest album was released. As the surviving members sang round his coffin, he was committed to the earth – with a microphone in his hands.
Commenting on their story, leader Clarence Fountain told The Province: “You know, gospel is hard to get over; but just keep on pushing, and don’t give up your faith. Hold on to what you got, and the Lord will bless you. But he may not bless you when you want to be blessed. He’ll bless you in his own time. And that’s what we did. We held on, and it come out good, you know. Four Grammys in a row here, and that puts you on top.”
Professionally, this has been a banner year. February saw the release of Go Tell it on the Mountain: Live in New York. The DVD is an essential purchase, featuring material from their seasonal CD of the same name – with guests Mavis Staples, Chrissie Hynde, Robert Randolph and Aaron Neville. That same month, their 2004 effort with Ben Harper, There Will Be a Light,won a Grammy as ‘Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album,’ and they appeared with Harper on the Grammy telecast. March brought Live at the Apollo – which features both acts – issued on CD and DVD.
The big news in March, however, was the release of the group’s own disc, Atom Bomb, debuting as the #1 ‘most added album’ on AAA and Americana Radio in the U.S. Featuring Scott’s final recordings (singing lead on three tracks) it’s every bit as good as we’ve come to expect – and with any luck, a shoo-in for a fifth consecutive Grammy.
The album mixes classic gospel with three contemporary songs that lend themselves to the Christian message: ‘Demons’ – which includes Blackalicious rapper Gift of Gab – comes from Fatboy Slim and Macy Gray, based on a sample from Bill Withers’ ‘I Can’t Write Left-Handed’; a reworking of Blind Faith’s ‘Presence of the Lord’ works well; and Norman Greenbaum’s 1970 hit ‘Spirit in the Sky’ rocks much like the original, thanks to Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.
The title track, ‘(Jesus Hits Like the) Atom Bomb,’ was originally recorded by Pilgrim Travelers in 1948. The lyric deals with Cold War-era issues, but it’s as relevant today as it was back then. ‘Old Blind Barnabas’ was suggested by long-time fan Tom Waits.
Last month, they performed before a sold out house at Vancouver’s Chan Centre. Resplendent in matching bright red suits and dark sunglasses, the seven members strode onstage single file, right arms outstretched, each with a hand resting on the shoulder of the next, led by a sighted member of the backing group.
Taking over Scott’s position, new vocalist Bishop Billy Bowers sounded like he’d been singing with them for years. Fountain, a hilarious MC, jokingly said he was sure that – like Scott – he’ll be replaced when he passes, and the group will carry on. Jimmy Carter, who appeared elderly and frail during the early part of the show, began hopping up and down – then headed into the aisles, with his handler trying to keep up. The performance was powerful and infectious, with believers and non-believers alike shouting out to the Lord. The sight of senior men producing such vital music – and enjoying themselves so genuinely – was extremely moving, and will certainly go down as one of the highlights of the year for concert-goers.
© John Cody 2005