Five Blind Boys of Alabama
Five Blind Boys of Alabama
According to Jonathan Eig of the Dallas Morning News singing gospel music in church might have become too easy for Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Instead of preaching to the choir, this group takes its act to nightclubs, where they still have the power and style to win over mainstream audiences. As Fountain, the leader of the group, related in the San Jose Mercury News, “It’s simple. The people in the church, they know already. We play to those who don’t know. Jesus mingled with the sinners and the wine drinkers. My concept is that gospel must go into every phase of life. If God is in you, no matter where you are, you’ll feel it. I’m sure”
However, the musical message delivered in secular venues is not quite the same as the impassioned testimonials and songs of joyful redemption that make up a typical Five Blind Boys performance. As Fountain explained in the San Diego Union, “When you’re in a church, doing a gospel concert, you have an all-black audience. In a club, you have to manipulate your product to the best of your ability and mix it up, so it’s not all gospel.” They perform songs like “Steal Away,” by Dobie Gray, and try to stick to gospel more than anything else, but they also try to sing tunes rearranged in their own style that are familiar to white audiences.
That style reminded Philip Elwood of the San Francisco Examiner of the opening of Jon Hendrick’s “The Evolution of the Blues”—“It all began in the house of the Lord”—because the Five Blind Boys and their listeners are first and foremost moved by their religious faith. This is reflected in their music despite the popular elements, a tradition that can be traced back to the roots of gospel. Spirituals had become annotated and formalized by the end of the nineteenth century, and at that time, a new African-American vocal music called jubilee singing revitalized the stuffy sound. Later, gospel music represented the further modification of the spiritual as blues and jazz idioms were appropriated by musicians like the legendary Thomas A. Dorsey, who is often called the father of gospel music.
For over 50 years Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama have nurtured their music through “about 15 record companies ... and about 35 albums” as they have become known around the world for their pure, traditional sound. But as Fountain told the San Jose Mercury News, “Truthfully, I never thought about making a career out of this. We were just kids, and we went into this blind. We thought we could make it and just stuck it out.” Fountain’s parents were cotton farmers in Selma, Alabama. He was born in Tyler, Alabama,
For the Record…
Members have included Clarence Fountain (born November 28, 1929, in Tyler, AL), George Scott, Olice Thomas, Johnny Fields, Samuel K. Lewis, Paul Exkano, George W. Warren, Percell Perkins, and Jimmy Carter.
Group formed as the Happyland Jubilee Singers at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind; changed name to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, 1948; signed with Specialty Records, 1953; Fountain toured as solo artist, 1969; group performed in the oratorio The Gospel at Colonus, 1983.
Addresses: Record company —Specialty/Fantasy Inc., 10th and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710.
on November 28, 1929, and has been blind since the age of two. When he was seven, he was sent to live at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind near Birmingham, Alabama. He joined the school’s choir, and within three years he and a group of friends had formed the Happyland Jubilee Singers.
According to Fountain, the first time they used the Five Blind Boys of Alabama title was in 1948, a year before their first big hit, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine.” The group was booked at a large show in Newark, New Jersey, along with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and their name change reflected a rivalry that was to endure for years to come. The group has had various members over the years, but Fountain, with his commanding presence and roughly sweet voice, and three others—George Scott, Jimmy Carter, and Johnny Fields—date back to the Talladega days. Soon they became so successful that they were forced to leave school, in part because Talladega was reluctant to allow them to accept their many bookings away from campus.
Like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers, who spawned Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, the Five Blind Boys took the combined elements of European choral singing and harmony, blues and jazz, and a syncopated rhythmic approach—what had become gospel—and connected with the same cultural desires that were to fuel the rise of rock and roll. In 1953, the Five Blind Boys were signed by Specialty Records. There they would do most of their classic work alongside other artists such as the Swan Silvertones, the Pilgrim Travelers, and Little Richard.
In 1991, Fantasy Records distributed the first set of remastered albums from the Specialty gospel archives, which included the Five Blind Boys’ albums Oh Lord —Stand By Me and Marching up to Zion. According to Fountain in the San Jose Mercury News, the decision of Sam Cooke to leave the gospel fold for the secular music world “just tore up the entire gospel field. A lot of people began to wonder—including the Blind Boys. My feeling then and now is: If you turn your back on God, he’ll turn his back on you. Cooke made a lot of money, but he’s not around to enjoy it now, is he?”
Fountain claimed that it takes patience and time to develop as a gospel singer and become established. And, with the exception of a hiatus from the group from 1969 to 1975, when he worked as a solo artist, he has toured almost continuously with the Five Blind Boys. In the San Jose Mercury News, he estimated that the group works on the road 40 to 45 weeks each year, and he credits their longevity to discipline and clean living.
In 1983, playwrights Lee Breur and Bob Telson set out to reconfigure the Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus as an oratorio in which the choir, guest artists, and soloists reinterpret Oedipus’s tragic redemption in the terms of Pentecostal Christian theology. Fountain stated in the San Jose Mercury News, “Originally they just wanted me, but I brought the Blind Boys and argued for the chorus concept (in which the entire group sings Oedipus’ role).” The show became a surprise hit, The Gospel at Colonus, and enjoyed a Broadway run and a long touring life. This Obie-winning musical became one of the Five Blind Boys’ most heralded projects, and Fountain considers it one of the high points of his career. In the Seattle Times he remarked, “I’d been away from the group a while then, but got it back together again for that. It really put us in the right perspective as far as the public notice, really got us the attention we deserve.”
Although the opera exposed the group to new listeners and led to an appearance on PBS’s Great Performances, it also brought on a brief split. Johnny Fields and George Scott sang throughout the Southeast using the original name, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, while some of the group elected to tour with the show as Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. By 1989, the original group members reunited and began to take advantage of their newfound popularity. Their 1992 recording for Elektra, Deep River, was
released as a part of the acclaimed American Explorer Series, and in 1993 Specialty Records released The Sermon, which featured remastered tracks recorded from 1952 to 1957.
In 1994 the Five Blind Boys of Alabama took part in a Richard Thompson tribute album, Beat the Retreat, on Capitol, singing with Bonnie Raitt. Their involvement with popular music might seem inevitable; Fountain’s voice has been compared to that of the great Temptations vocalist David Ruffin by Jeff Pike in the Seattle Times. Pike admired both singers’ ability “to deliver a quality of gruff, earthbound grit, which is nonetheless lifted to the heights by sheer, masterful poise.
But Fountain remains apart from rock and roll, even though he has sometimes said that the only difference between it and gospel is that he sings ‘Lord’ while others sing ‘babe.’” Fountain clearly stated the group’s policy in The Oregonian: “Our goal is to show people the reality in serving God. Everybody got a part of God in them whether they like it or not. God breathed the breath of life and created the living soul. That’s the part we’re trying to reach.” And the Five Blind Boys, like many contemporary gospel singers, are willing to work with other musicians from other musical genres to reach that goal. As Fountain has said: “Sometimes jazz or rock musicians are not oriented to the gospel side. It’s a different feel. We know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.” And they usually get it right.
I’m a Changed Man, Wajji, 1989.
Brand New, Wajji, 1990.
I’m Not That Way Anymore, Atlanta International, 1991.
Deep River, Elektra/Warner, 1992.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters, HOB, 1992.
The Soul of Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of
Alabama, HOB, 1993.
The Sermon (re-released tracks from 1952-57), Specialty,
1993. Oh Lord Stand by Me, Specialty. Original Blind Boys of Alabama, Savgos.
Contributors, with Bonnie Raitt, to Beat the Retreat, Capitol, 1994.
Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Limelight Editions, 1985.
Daily News (Los Angeles), February 15, 1993.
Dallas Morning News, February 20, 1993.
Oregonian, February 5, 1993.
Rejoice!, April 1992.
San Diego Union, November 2, 1988.
San Francisco Examiner, January 18, 1989.
San Jose Mercury News, June 21, 1991.
Seattle Times, January 29, 1993.
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