Blind Boys of Alabama
In the seven decades since the Blind Boys of Alabama first began singing together, America has witnessed a World War, the civil rights movement, and the Summer of Love; the moon landing, Vietnam, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X; the invention of the jukebox, the atomic bomb, and the internet. Through it all, the Blind Boys' music has not only endured, but thrived, helping both to distinguish the sound of the American south and to push it forward through the 20th century and well on into the 21st. Consisting of Jimmy “Jimster” Carter, Ricky McKinnie, Paul Beasley, Rev. Julius Love, newest addition Sterling Glass, and led by Music Director and lead guitarist Joey Williams, the group has the rare distinction of being recognized around the world as both living legends and modern-day innovators. They are not just gospel singers borrowing from old traditions; the group helped to define those traditions in the 20th century and almost single-handedly created a new gospel sound for the 21st. Since the original members first sang together as kids at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the late 1930s (including Jimmy Carter, who leads the group today), the band has persevered through seven decades to become one of the most recognized and decorated roots music groups in the world.
Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s, the Blind Boys flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel. Since they released their debut single, "I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine," on the iconic Veejay label in 1948, the Blind Boys have been hailed as "gospel titans" by Rolling Stone Magazine. In the early 1960s, the band sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and were a part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. But as the years passed, gospel fans started to drift away and follow the many singers who had originated in the church but were now recording secular popular music. And the Blind Boys, who refused many offers to ‘cross over’ to secular music, also saw their audiences dwindle. However, the Blind Boys persevered, and their time came again, starting in the 1980s with their starring role alongside Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, in the Obie Award-winning Broadway musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” which began a new chapter in their incredible history. It’s almost unbelievable that a group of blind, African-American singers, who started out touring during a time of whites-only bathrooms, restaurants and hotels, went on to win five GRAMMY® Awards, a Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY, be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and to perform at the White House for three different presidents.
The Blind Boys are still going strong both with their recordings and their worldwide touring. Their latest album release is Almost Home, created in 2017 on their own BBOA Records label, in collaboration with Amazon Music. It was recently released widely, digitally, and physically via Single Lock Records in 2020. The album was recorded with four different GRAMMY-winning producers in four different cities. John Leventhal recorded the Blind Boys and their band in New York City, Vance Powell in Nashville, Chris Goldsmith in Seattle, and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. The result is a collection that captures the band's singular spirit and pulls off the masterful feat of looking backwards while still sounding as vital and modern as ever. Almost Home features songwriting contributions from an exceptional collection of artists including Valerie June, North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, Ruthie Foster, and more. The album is composed primarily of original songs which focus on the remarkable journey of the band’s two surviving original members at the time, long-time leader Clarence Fountain (who has since passed away), and current leader Jimmy Carter. One of the only non-originals is “See By Faith”, an unrecorded Bob Dylan original given to them, released digitally only.
A couple years ago, the Blind Boys collaborated with 15-time Grammy-winning bluegrass and banjo legend Béla Fleck. The resulting was “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a cover of a song made famous by Nina Simone. It was released in 2021 as the A Side on a limited edition 7 inch, with “See By Faith” (a Bob Dylan cover of a previously unreleased song) as the B Side, as a Record Store Day exclusive. The single was then released digitally, followed by a nomination for a GRAMMY Award for Best American Roots Performance. 2022 brought two more collaborations. After touring ten countries with Afropop stars Amadou & Mariam, the two groups released the single “Netola.” And after several concerts with classically trained hip-hop duo Black Violin, including at iconic venues Ravinia and Wolf Trap, the bands put out “We Are One” and “The Message.”
While the Blind Boys recording career stretches back to the 1940s and thereafter experienced the rise and fall of Gospel music, at the dawn of the new millennium came a rebirth, with a string of Grammy winning releases and a dynamic group of collaborators. In 2001, they released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and won the first of their Grammy Awards. The next year they backed Gabriel on his album Up and joined him on a world tour. Shortly thereafter, David Simon chose their cover of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire. Subsequent albums included collaborations with the likes of Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph, Aaron Neville, Patty Griffin, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the late Allen Toussaint.
In 2013 came the release I’ll Find A Way, a powerful collection of gospel and spiritual songs new and old, featuring some of the Blind Boys’ most fervent vocals as well as contributions by a new generation of Blind Boys fans, including Justin Vernon (also known as Bon Iver) and Merrill Garbus (also known as Tune-Yards). In 2014 the Blind Boys released Talkin’ Christmas!, a collaboration with Grammy winning blues legend Taj Mahal, that continued the band’s streak of creating original and unique work. It includes new versions of Christmas standards, covers of hidden gospel gems, and seven brand-new holiday songs featuring Money Mark on keyboards, Taj Mahal on vocals and songwriting collaborations with Stax Records soul legend William Bell.
In 2019 came an album collaboration with Marc Cohn, known for his smash hit “Walking to Memphis”, and producer John Leventhal. Work To Do, a unique collection that combines the songwriting talents of Marc Cohn with the soul-stirring harmonies of the Blind Boys, is comprised of three studio tracks by Cohn and the Blind Boys and seven intimate live performances recorded at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, CT, during a taping of the PBS series The Kate.
It’s without a doubt that the Blind Boys of Alabama are a pillar of American music and icons of Gospel. The New York Times have said they "came to epitomize what is known as jubilee singing, a livelier breed of gospel music," adding that "they made it zestier still by adding jazz and blues idioms and turning up the volume, creating a sound…like the rock 'n' roll that grew out of it." The New Yorker simply called them "legendary."
The Blind Boys' live shows are roof-raising musical events that appeal to audiences of all cultures, as evidenced by an international itinerary that has taken them to nearly every continent. On tour they have performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages, including with music icons like Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Lou Reed. The Blind Boys of Alabama have attained the highest levels of achievement in a career that spans over 75 years and shows no signs of diminishing. "When the Blind Boys started out, we weren't even thinking about all these accolades and all that stuff," founding member Jimmy Carter told NPR. "We just wanted to get out and sing gospel and tell the world about gospel music." Mission accomplished!