A founding member of the legendary gospel vocal group the Blind Boys of Alabama, George Scott was known for his rich and powerful baritone and his jubilee singing style. As the Blind Boys walked on stage, each with his arm on the shoulder of the man in front, Scott appeared stone-faced. After sitting motionless he would jump up for his solo. Following more than 40 years on the traditional gospel music circuit, the Blind Boys achieved mainstream success in the 1990s.
Formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers
George Lewis Scott was born blind on March 18, 1929, in Notasulga, Alabama. He first met future peers Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter in 1936 at the Talladega Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind near Birmingham, Alabama. His mother, Hassie Lou Scott, had brought him to live there and learn Braille. In 2004 Scott told the Diabetes Forecast: "The school was almost like a prison. But they did teach us how to read music in braille. Mainly, they taught us how to sing." Scott, along with Fountain and Carter, sang in the school glee club. Although their teachers were white and did not teach any black music, the boys were exposed to gospel on the radio.
In 1939 Scott, Fountain, Carter, and two others formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. Jubilee is a lively gospel style that incorporates elements of jazz and blues into traditional spirituals. The Jubilee Singers began performing professionally in 1944. Since school would not allow them to perform off-campus, the boys dropped out and went on the road. Their only instrumental accompaniment was Scott's guitar.
Gospel was very popular in the 1940s and the Jubilee Singers were stars of the gospel music circuit. They performed in black churches, community centers, schools, and on the radio. Being young, blind, and black meant the boys were easily exploited and cheated, and thus Scott and the others rarely enjoyed the little money they earned.
Became Five Blind Boys of Alabama
In the mid-1940s, a music producer put the Jubilee Singers on the same bill as the Jackson Harmonies from Mississippi and promoted the show as a compe-tition. The groups were renamed the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Scott told Diabetes Forecast: "I didn't mind the blind part, but the name used to bother me because it made people look on us as boys. But I don't mind it now."
The Blind Boys entered a recording studio for the first time in 1948 and came out with their hit "I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine." In 1953 they signed with Specialty Records and recorded albums that were to become classics, including their hit "Oh Lord Stand By Me." Over the years, as various members joined and left the group, their leader Clarence Fountain, Carter, and Scott remained the mainstays. Although Scott eventually settled in Durham, North Carolina, the Blind Boys toured continuously.
With the emergence of rhythm and blues and rock and roll in the 1950s, the audience for gospel music shrank. Unlike many other black musicians, the Blind Boys refused to abandon traditional gospel. The next three decades brought hard times as Scott and the others struggled to earn a living. In 1969 Fountain embarked on a solo career and the Blind Boys disbanded, regrouping a decade later with the original members.
Moved Into the Mainstream
In 1983 the Blind Boys got their first big break when they signed as the chorus of the Broadway hit, Gospel at Colonus, a gospel musical based on the Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. It won that year's Obie for Best Musical. Colonus brought the Blind Boys to a much larger—and predominately white—audience. However, George Scott and Johnny Fields split from the group and began touring the Southeast as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The remaining members toured with the musical as Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
When the original Blind Boys again reunited toward the end of the 1980s, everything changed. They toured widely, performing at large, mainstream venues, before younger, racially mixed audiences. Their classic albums were re-mastered and re-released. Although gospel music remained their focus, the Blind Boys began performing their own distinctive arrangements. Their 1992 album, Deep River, in which they transformed contemporary songs into gospel, won them their first Grammy nomination. Edging away from their traditional a cappella harmonies, the Blind Boys began performing and recording with other musicians, on television and in movies. When playing their arrangements of songs by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and others, they sometimes changed lines that were inappropriate for a gospel audience.
Spirit of the Century earned the Blind Boys a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul/Gospel Album. Higher Ground won in 2002. Their Christmas album, Go Tell It On the Mountain, won the 2003 Grammy. They shared the Grammy with Ben Harper for There Will Be a Light, their first album to break into the Billboard Top 100. Scott was the lead vocalist on its opening track "Take My Hand."
Diagnosed with Diabetes
Within a span of 10 years Scott, Fountain, and Carter were all diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. They launched a campaign for the American Diabetes Association and began donating portions of their album and personal appearance earnings to the organization. Scott retired from touring in 2004. He died in his sleep on March 9, 2005, at his home in Durham, of heart failure and complications of diabetes. Funeral services were held on the same day as the release of Atom Bomb. Scott was lead vocalist on three of the tracks, including "(Jesus Hits Like the) Atom Bomb." He was survived by his mother and sister, and by his wife, Ludie Lewis Mann Scott.
At a Glance …
Born George Lewis Scott on March 18, 1929, in Notasulga, AL; died on March 9, 2005, in Durham, NC; married Ludie Lewis Mann.
Career: Happy Land Jubilee Singers, founding vocalist and guitarist, 1944–48; Blind Boys of Alabama, founding vocalist, 1948–2005.
Awards: With the Blind Boys of Alabama: National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowship, 1994; Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul/Gospel Album, Spirit of the Century, 2001, Higher Ground, 2002, Go Tell It On the Mountain, 2003, (with Ben Harper) There Will Be a Light, 2004; Gospel Music Association, Dove Award for Best Traditional Gospel Music, 2003, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, 2003.
Scott remained grounded in his religion through it all. He told CBS's 60 Minutes in 2003, as quoted in the Hollywood Reporter: "We are looking for that eternity, that life eternal. That's the main thing that we are looking at. And rock 'n' roll couldn't give us that. Now, after all that money's gone, where is your soul?" Clarence Fountain was one of the last to speak with Scott before his death. He was quoted in Billboard: "We're grateful to the Lord for letting us have George for as long as we did. He and I grew up together and sang together from little boys to old men. George was a great singer. He could sing any part in a song…. He lived a life of service and now he's gone on to his reward."
Albums with the Blind Boys of Alabama
I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine, Coleman, 1948.
Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Savoy, 1959, 2001.
Old Time Religion, Vee-Jay, 1963.
True Convictions, Vee-Jay, 1963; Collectables, 2001.
Can I Get a Witness? Buddah, 1965.
Church Concert in New Orleans (live), Hob, 1967.
Marching Up to Zion, Specialty, 1970.
Oh Lord, Stand by Me, Specialty, 1970.
Precious Memories, MCA, 1974.
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Gospel, 1987.
I Am a Soldier, Nashboro, 1991, Capitol, 2004.
Deep River, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992.
Bridge Over Troubled Water, House of Blues, 1993; Liquid 8, 2003.
Don't Forget to Pray, Jewel, 1994.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Jewel, 1994.
1948–1951, FlyRight, 1995.
I Brought Him With Me (live), House of Blues, 1995, 2003.
Golden Moments in Gospel, Jewel, 1996.
Holdin' On, House of Blues, 1997, 2003.
Spirit of the Century, Real World, 2001.
Higher Ground, Real World, 2002.
Amazing Grace, Light, 2003.
Go Tell It On the Mountain, Real World, 2003.
Jesus Rose With All the Power in His Hands, Liquid 8, 2003.
Lord Search My Heart, Liquid 8, 2003.
(With Ben Harper) There Will Be a Light, Virgin, 2004.
Atom Bomb, Real World, 2005.
"Five Blind Boys of Alabama," Contemporary Musicians, vol. 12, Gale, 1994.
Billboard, March 26, 2005, p. 13.
Diabetes Forecast, February 2004, pp. 40-44.
Guardian (London), March 14, 2005, p. 21.
Hollywood Reporter, March 11, 2005, pp. 5-6.
Sing Out! Summer 2005, p. 222.
"Blind Boys of Alabama," Richard De La Font Agency, Inc., www.delafont.com/music_acts/blind-boys-alabama.htm (September 21, 2005).
The Blind Boys of Alabama, www.blindboys.com (September 21, 2005).
The Blind Boys of Alabama, www.realworldrecords.com/blindboys/ (September 21, 2005).
"The Blind Boys of Alabama Discography," The Rosebud Agency, www.rosebudus.com/blindboys/discography.html (September 22, 2005).