Grapes of Wrath
Gospel's Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama have a lot of stories left to tell.
By Randy Matin
OCTOBER 19, 1998: One of a very few WWII era artists who are still actively recording and touring today, The Blind Boys of Alabama began recording when state-of-the-art meant 78 rpm.
The sextet - which still features original members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, and George Scott - made its recording debut in 1948 with "I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine," and have just severed ties with House of Blues Records after releasing the cd Holdin' On last year.
"To me it seems like we started just yesterday," Fountain says. He leaves for Los Angeles tomorrow to begin rehearsals for the House of Blues: Highway 61 Tour. Billed as a multi-media trek, the show traces the history of the blues from its gospel roots in the Mississippi Delta to modern Chicago-style using rare film footage, narrative and live performances from Booker T. Jones, John Hammond, and Billy Boy Arnold, and with The Blind Boys as the opening act.
"I think that is wrong," says the charismatic Fountain in a husky, rolling rasp. "Usually the big blues acts think they better ... think they deserve more time. We know we are the lowest on the totem pole with only a little part to play. But you got to always remember that from gospel came the blues and from the blues came jazz."
Though Fountain has his gripes, they are informed by experience and he delivers them like a preacher whipping up a storm and then capping it with a spirit of comfort.
"If you smart you jes' go-wanna do what choo can do best," he said, laughing, " and get off stage.... We get 'em [the audience] up 'n clappin' in 15 minutes an' cut it off when we get to the highest point."
Committed long ago to singing gospel, Fountain, like his peers Sam Cooke and Little Richard had the opportunity to make randb records, thereby tapping into a wider audience and a much fatter paycheck. He remembers being in the recording studio when Cooke made the switch from gospel to soul, and though tempted, refusing producer Bumps Blackwell's blank check offer to do the same: "We was in New York and it was snowin' outside and I really needed the money. The man said 'name your price' But I had already made a promise to the Lord that we was gonna sing gospel. And when you make God a promise you don't back up on it.... You just don't play with God."
"I have regretted (that decision). I've been broke a lot of times with nothin' but bologna and soda crackers to eat. But hey, He brought us through that, too. So I'm not complainin'."
With the popularity of modern gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin, who crosses over to a mass audience, gospel music has swelled to a $1 billion-a-year industry. During the '50s, however, when the Blind Boys were coming up, there were many fallow years between hits.
The group didn't hit mainstream success until the Lee Brewer and Bob Telson musical Gospel At Colonus, which also launched actor Morgan Freeman's career, became a hit in 1988. The show, which pairs modern gospel with Greek tragedy, was rewritten after a money losing run in Europe, to include co-starring roles for Fountain and the Blind Boys. It became a hit, running 15 weeks on Broadway, followed by a number of national tours. While this new-found notoriety drew media attention, a Grammy for the 1993 album Deep River and the NEA's National Heritage Fellowship award, Fountain says he is not finding support where it should be the strongest - within the churches.
"They don't want the gospel to go into nightclubs and [concert] venues. But I know that is where Jesus would have done his preachin'...," he says. "The 150th Psalm says to 'Praise the Lord with string instruments [and] praise him with the drum and praise him with the tambourine.' It don't say 'Be quiet.' "
Also flagging in support for the band is its former record company, House of Blues - what would seem to have been a match made in heaven. The Blind Boys' debut for the label I Brought Him With Me was recorded live at the House of Blues in Hollywood over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in 1995 and was followed by Holdin' On. But, there were conflicts. "They told us to 'go back' but they didn't give me nothin' to go back to. And the songs they recommended really wasn't our style," Fountain says. "They lost the best distributor in the business and the new one (Polygram) isn't doing nothin'. They don't know how to distribute gospel over in the white market."
Obviously finished with House of Blues Records, Fountain has two new projects in the offing: one with Bobby Womack and Stevie Wonder and another Womack/Fountain album backed by the Blind Boys. "Gonna retire if it doesn't make a hit," he says. "Something got to give!"
When he does retire, Fountain plans to collect the many tales of his life in an autobiography. Among the memories is an Elvis story: "We met Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1946. We were all nothing but kids. And every time we would sing at the Rising Star Baptist Church he'd be right there -a little white boy sittin' on the front seat with all the black folks. And, I am happy to say that the jubilee style of gospel rubbed off on him."
Fountain also has plenty of reminiscences about competition with other musicians and tales of sailing under the radar of racism in the deep south.
"There's a lot of stories I got left to tell," Fountain says.
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