Clarence Fountain was exhausted the morning I interviewed him. This was a few years back and the Blind Boys of Alabama leader was already in his 80s.
''I'm so tired that my legs can hardly stand up,'' Fountain said in a voice the early hour had left more gravelly than usual. ''It's just one of those things.''
The group, which had begun recording in the 1940s, was already firmly ensconced in the mainstream recognition that continues to this day in the form of capacity crowds and Grammy Awards. It’s been a remarkable evolution for a traditional Southern gospel vocal group but Fountain offered me a ready explanation.
''The Lord looks out for us,'' Fountain said. ''He knows the future and He holds it in his hands. He brought us this far and He didn't bring us this far just to leave us. In hard times, He has led us. He hasn't failed us yet.''
Given those beliefs, it’s no surprise to see the Blind Boys topping the bill at Sing Out for Seva, which is set for November 2 at the Fillmore. The evening’s lineup also includes the rollicking New Orleans sound of Dumpstaphunk and the bluesy ramblings of the Bay Area’s own Hot Tuna. Proceeds benefit a truly remarkable organization.
The name Seva (say-va) is a Sanskrit word meaning "selfless service." Seva was founded in 1978 by a group of medical professionals, counterculture activists, musicians and compassionate individuals, all dedicated to the prevention of blindness around the globe. Most notably among them are public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant, spiritual leader Ram Dass and humanitarian activist Wavy Gravy. There are an astonishing 39 million people who live in darkness around the globe. The extreme majority of people who are blind live in the developing world. Perhaps the most incredible statistic is that eight out of 10 people who are blind could see again if they simply had access to an eye doctor. Since 1978, Seva's Sight Program has helped nearly 3.5 million people to see again.
Born in Tyler, Ala., Fountain founded his first gospel group, the Happy Land Singers, in the late 1930s. He and friends Carter, Scott, Johnny Fields and Ollice Thomas initially performed only at their school, the Talladega Institute.
Encouraged by the audience response and inspired by the Golden Gate Quartet, the Happy Land Singers set out on a musical career. It was 1944 when the ensemble – sporting a harder sound than most of its gospel contemporaries – began touring the South.
The Happy Land Singers' transformation into the Blind Boys of Alabama is simple enough. Fans watching the group enter a concert hall would say, ''There go the blind boys.''
The name stuck and, in the mid-'50s, led to a sort of battle of the bands tour with the Blind Boys of Mississippi. Fountain's group had, by that time, signed with Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, following a few early recordings for the Coleman and Palda labels.
Specialty was about to make a rock 'n' roll star out of Richard Penniman (Little Richard). Among the Blind Boys' other Specialty labelmates was Sam Cooke. Jimmy Reed was on the Vee-Jay label's roster when the ensemble recorded there in the late '50s.
The pop and R&B connection was no fluke for the Blind Boys. Many of the era's ''race records'' were reworked versions of gospel tunes. Ray Charles substituted the word ''woman'' for ''savior'' in creating his 1954 hit ''I Got a Woman.'' Within a few years, gospel singers such as Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls were leaving sacred music for the more lucrative secular field.
The Blind Boys never made such a conversion, but their sound combined elements of both genres. They've worked in recent decades to reverse the process, taking songs by secular stars and turning them into gospel tunes.
The group toured across the country during the golden age of gospel in the 1950s. In the 1960s, audiences shrank and the Blind Boys recorded for the Keen, Savoy and Jewel labels. Fountain left the group for a time to pursue a solo career.
The Blind Boys' fortunes began rebounding in the 1980s. The chief vehicle was ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's Obie Award-winning musical. Presenting the classic Greek tragedy "Oedipus at Colonus'' in a contemporary gospel motif, the show began as a workshop production in New York. It premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983 and moved to Broadway a year later. The Blind Boys' performance won acclaim and the group has performed the show around the world.
In the '90s, the Blind Boys emerged as cultural icons, a status the group continues to enjoy. Their new album, “I’ll Find A Way,” came out two weeks ago.
All of which only confirms its decision to stay with gospel.
The music, Fountain told me, “makes people's faith stronger. If you have a little faith to believe, the Lord will take you there.''
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