After the commercialized barrages of shopping, secular Santas, and the trees and lights are in place, a great opportunity to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas will take place on December 23 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. The Blind Boys of Alabama will perform an evening of songs to celebrate the Christmas season, featuring gospel classics and songs from their new album Talkin’ Christmas, as well as their previous Christmas season Grammy-winner Go Tell It on the Mountain. Who best to sing the joys of this holiday but a group with its origins 70 years ago, still going strong and bringing gospel music to a younger and more diverse audience with each new musical project?
The show begins at 7:30pm and ticket prices vary for members and regular tickets; details are online at the Center’s website. The show is the final program of the fall tour by the Blind Boys, and a rare chance to see one of the premier gospel vocal groups in the country the day before Christmas Eve.
The Blind Boys of Alabama’s career started in the deep South in black churches and has grown to include international audiences, appearances at the White House, and a recording career of more than 65 albums, many receiving industry awards. The personnel have shifted over the years; when original leader Clarence Fountain became unable to regularly tour with the band due to poor health about a decade ago, Jimmy Carter took on the role and is the only founding member still touring. The performing core of the group includes four blind singers, including singers Carter, Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Paul Beasely, guitarist and musical director Joey Williams, along with a drummer, bass player and keyboardist. They tour several months a year, five to six nights a week, a schedule that might wear out much younger men.
A recent phone interview with Carter was one of those experiences that is a music journalist’s dream, time traveling through a section of American social and musical history with an 83-year-old gentleman who has been there since the group’s humble beginning. Friendly and down-to-earth, he seemed every bit as knowledgeable about current music as that from the 1940s. The memorable half-an-hour talking with him was both a crash course in the evolution of black gospel music over half a century as well as a glimpse into the challenges and accomplishments of a remarkable group of men who, despite disabilities, have become icons of a uniquely American musical form.
They got their start in the late 1930s as members of the chorus/glee club of the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind. They would regularly sing together at the school, and some members would sneak off to sing gospel music, often to military training camps in the area. Carter describes the group’s first performance like this:
“The Blind Boys of Alabama, we had a school for the blind in a little town called Talladega in Alabama; we met up there and we were influenced at that time by a band called the Golden Gate Quartet. They were on the radio in the early afternoon; we would listen to them and we were all brought up on gospel music. We thought if they could do it, we could too. We sang at the school for some years, and on June 10, 1944, we did our first professional performance.”
The group numbered six in the early years, five of whom were blind, and the lead vocalist was Fountain. In 1948, they got their name for good after a New Jersey “Battle of the Blind Boys” show promotion featuring both the Five Blind Boys from Alabama and Blind Boys from Mississippi-both singing gospel and keeping the names that stuck afterwards, as well as a lively singing competition that developed between Fountain and the Mississippi group leader, Archie Brownlee. The Blind Boys grew to be an important black gospel group during the late 1940s and 1950s, touring the gospel circuit and recording their earliest albums in 1948 and 1950. As their audience grew, there were lean times as well.
“When the Blind Boys started out, we were in the South and at that time the South was segregated; we could only sing to black audiences. As time went on, we were determined to go on anyway,” Carter said. “When we were starting out, we were intent on singing gospel music and weren’t concerned about money or accolades or nothing like that. We were just singing gospel music, trying to tell the world about God, and trying to bring hope to a world that needed hope at that time – and we still do. We were out there singing during the time that the South was segregated – at black churches, in black schools and black auditoriums, and we would sing and be hungry but we couldn’t go to a decent restaurant to eat because all the black restaurants all closed early at night. We just had to go to a grocery store and get baloney and bread and eat that, which we didn’t mind doing, because we were determined to make this a success.”
With the advent of rock and roll, and in the ’60s, soul music, young artists were taking the sounds of gospel and incorporating it into other forms, while traditional black gospel like that performed by the Blind Boys declined. Listeners could crank a radio dial and hear white artists as varied as The Band, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis, or Bob Dylan all doing hit pop songs that were reworked gospel songs, like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “I Shall Be Released.” At the same time, many black gospel artists decided to go secular, and soul music thrived with Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin becoming top sellers. The mid- and late-sixties were full of gospel-style songs with pop words; others, including the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and Sam and Dave’s call and response “I Thank You,” were basically gospel songs pressed and packaged as soul.
“You know, when you have the gospel music in you, it’s something that sticks with you. Sam Cooke and Aretha, you know they crossed over but their gospel did not cross over, it stayed in their hearts, even though they might have gone another way, their gospel roots are still there and always will be,” observed Carter. “Aretha today right now still has a segment in her show that is strictly gospel music; it’s something they just can’t get out.”
The Blind Boys continued to be active, releasing albums. They were also involved in the Civil Rights movement, playing at benefits for Martin Luther King Jr.
“After that we got a chance to start singing to a majority of people and they began to recognize the Blind Boys and accepted us. We found out that the white audiences had loved us all the whole time, we just weren’t allowed to sing for you all.”
The increased exposure to white audiences came to the fore in 1983, when they were cast in a play called The Gospel at Colonus, a musical version of the Greek play Oedipus at Colonus – but staged in a black Pentecostal church. The play was a hit and won an off-Broadway Obie Award as well as nominations for Pulitzer and Tony prizes. It also revived their careers, helping raise general interest in gospel music and bringing their sound to the mainstream audience.
In 1992, they released Deep River, with Booker T. Jones producing; It garnered a Grammy nomination and included a Bob Dylan song. The major-label release was the beginning of a string of albums that involved collaborations with artists in pop, country, and world music. The album Spirit of the Century, from 2001, won their first Grammy award and included roots performers stringed-instrument specialist David Lindley, blues guitarist John Hammond, and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.
“We wanted to involve more young people in our music, that’s why we started collaborating with people like Ben Harper, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke and people like that because they relate to young people. Since we have collaborated with those people, we’ve found out that we’ve gotten more young people involved in our music, and in our concerts more young people are attending. It has helped bring gospel music to the forefront.”
The inclusion of secular artists and songs continued on the 2002 album Higher Ground, with the focus on a blend of soul sounds with gospel, and songs by Harper, Mayfield, Prince, and Stevie Wonder. The album received a Grammy and the group was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame later that year. Their 2003 Christmas album Go Tell It on the Mountain featured collaborations with Tom Waits, Neville, Burke, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph, and many others and was recognized with another Grammy. Other accolades would follow – they have five Grammys to date and a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. For Carter, one of the biggest thrills was working on a collaboration album with country stars that included Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Lee Ann Womack, and the Oak Ridge Boys, for 2011’s Take the High Road. He wouldn’t mind doing it again.
“Well, I am a country music fan,” mentioned Carter. “I love country music. We had a chance to do a country record and I had a chance to meet some of my country heroes, but there are more still out there that I would love to do some things with. Hopefully, down the road, I’ll have a chance to do things with people like Reba McIntyre and Tim McGraw, those kind of folks. I hope that if I can last long enough God will allow me to do some stuff with some more country artists.”
Other secular/gospel collaborations have included a disc of New Orleans music featuring Dr. John and other Crescent City figures, and a 2013 album with a number of alternative pop artists. They also played at the Royal Albert Hall in London and performed on many late night television shows.
This year, the group worked on their latest Christmas album with a smaller number of collaborators, just long-time bluesman Taj Mahal and veteran soul singer/songwriter William Bell, who has written music as varied as “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “To Be a Lover” during a 30-plus year recording career. The album was produced by Chris Goldsmith, a North County musician who has worked locally as the music consultant for the Belly Up Tavern and built up a reputation as an innovator, recording with Neville, Harper, Musselwhite, and Chrissie Hynde. He has been at the helm of many of the group’s collaborative efforts during the new Millenium, and the new album features many new compositions by the members of the Boys and by Bell.
“Well, our producer, Chris Goldsmith, is a great gentleman, and he came up with the idea to bring Taj Mahal idea in as well as William Bell. We went to William Bell’s studio and we sat down and talked with him, talked with Taj Mahal, and got some songs together with all of them. We sat down and recorded them and I don’t know what you think of them, but they sound pretty good to me.”
Good, indeed. Talkin’ Christmas has a “live in the studio” vibe that is endearing and mixes interesting arrangements of a few familiar hymns with new songs: “Do You Hear What I Hear?” starts it off, played as a rousing rocker. Mahal sings on the original “What Can I Do?” and brings some blues cred to a spiritual ballad, while “Merry Christmas to You” has achingly beautiful falsetto verses that sound like the old Impressions records that Mayfield sang on. Deep, baritone gospel harmonies give bottom to lovely guitar lines on another fascinating original, “The Sun Is Rising,” while Mahal again makes his presence known on the disc closer, “Merry Christmas” with Hawaiian steel guitar. The collection is eclectic, fun, and reverent; it is the perfect sonic oasis of peace, joy, and hope that one badly needs after the year-long desert of bad news that has been 2014.
While he admits it would be great if the Boys were set up by a sponsor at a dinner club in a place like Las Vegas rather than six-night-a-week touring, Carter’s attitude remains positive – one gets the feeling that his mission comes from a higher place.
“When you love what you do, that keeps you motivated. People ask me, ‘You’ve been together so long, what keeps you together, what keeps you going?’ What keeps you motivated is you are always trying to give out the gospel message. It takes traveling, it takes a whole lot of energy, you have to have all of that. God gives us that, because it’s our calling. In my opinion, we were predestined to do this work, and so I think as long as we can perform, as long as God wants us to do this work, we’ll do it.
“When people ask me my favorite gospel song, I like them all, but the one that sticks out in my mind is ‘Amazing Grace.’ And the reason why that is, had it not been for God’s amazing grace, the Blind Boys would not be here now. We wouldn’t still be out here trying to do the work of God. His amazing grace has allowed us to still be here even though we’ve had setbacks, we’ve had rough times, but His amazing grace has seen us through all our trials and tribulations and we’re still here.”
See the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Californnia Center for the Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido, on Tuesday, December 23, 7:30pm.