There, there. If you haven't heard of the Blind Boys of Alabama, don't beat yourself up. They've only been going at it for oh, let's see... 67 years!?
To some, the Blind Boys became known only after their appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival, but more than half a century ago the band was playing in front of crowds that reached 50,000.
After playing with a number of musicians over the years, this Fall the Blind Boys released Go Tell It On The Mountain, a collection of Christmas songs with appearances from artists such as Tom Waits, John Medeski, George Clinton, Aaron Neville, and Robert Randolph. The band was recognized earlier this year when they were inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame. Offering a lesson in longevity, bandleader Clarence Fountain was kind enough to take the time to discuss the band's roots and current efforts.
JamBase: Thank you for taking the time to do this. So how are things? Aren't you in Louisiana now?
CF: Yeah, I'm in Baton Rouge actually, which is close to New Orleans.
JamBase: Now if I'm not mistaken, you originally were named the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, so how did you get your current name?
CF: There was a man who had a concert in New Jersey and there were two different blind boy groups at the time, and he came up with the idea that we were going to have a battle of the bands. There were five of them and five of us. He said it was going to be billed as "Five Blind Boys from Alabama vs. Five Blind Boys from Mississippi." I thought that was a kind of unique way of putting it, and we got to thinking that we should just continue the same trend, so that people know who's who... and that's how the name came about.
Happy Land Jubilee Singers
JamBase: So right then from the beginning, did you start out with a fairly large audience base if you're traveling to New Jersey and those sorts of things, or did you kind of play it up as "a night of gospel music?"
CF: Well gospel was first, and it was bigger than it is now. I can quote you a time now: in 1945 we played in front of 50,000 people.
Wow. Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but you did get the chance to join up with guys like Sam Cooke and Little Richard, right?
CF: Yeah, I did--because all that there was was gospel. Sam came out with the Soul Stirrers and Little Richard came out of his father's church down in Macon, Georgia. So Little Richard started out singing gospel, and Sam came out of a gospel group. So yeah, we did sing with them. Went up and down the road with them a little bit, especially Sam because he came out of a gospel group.
C. Fountain and J. Carter
So in playing with so many artists over the years, while it may be that every time you get to play with each person is special in its own way, were there any times that stick out in your mind as some of your favorite experiences?
CF: Well Ben Harper is an artist where... well, he loves us and we love him. We'd sing his tunes and he'd sing ours. We just get along really good. And Bonnie Raitt. She's just someone that we really admire, and we got to do background for her. We did that for a lot of folks, and Peter Gabriel who owns the record company in England that we are on. We've done a lot of background for a lot of folks though. We enjoyed it, it was nice. As long as they keep the gospel clean, then they aren't going to have any problems by me. But if they want to get into just rock 'n' roll, then I'm not really into that at all.
So as far as playing with a wide range of artists, was that something that you were always able to do, or were there maybe some expectations from the audience when you were first starting out that it was going to be "pure" gospel as opposed to a mix of different kinds of music?
CF: Well, what you have to do when you're a gospel artist, you have to be able to switch over... like the song "People Get Ready," everybody thought it was a rock 'n' roll tune. But you have to look at the lyrics in the song. In "People Get Ready," it goes "There's a train a-comin'." But he's not talking about a train that we would think of normally--he was talking about the gospel train, and the train is comin' from heaven to get you and carry you home. And there's a whole lot of other songs that people think are gospel that are rock 'n' roll, and a whole lot of songs that people think are rock 'n' roll that are gospel. You need to determine from the lyrics what category it falls in.
So just over the past couple albums that you guys have put out, you've covered a lot of different ground musically with artists like Prince.
CF: Right, and that just goes right back to what we were talking about just a bit ago... you have to listen to the tune and the lyrics to know what it is and what it is not. With Prince, that was a gospel tune.
So with all the different artists that you've worked with, have they all been pretty easy as far as letting you cover and put a new spin on their songs, or pretty accommodating as far as that goes?
CF: Well the man that writes the tunes, all he wants is his money! He's not concerned about his tune--that's just the general philosophy. And if I write a tune... and I don't care who cut it, could be Ray Charles, as long as the tune is alright. And like I said, you listen to the tune and you listen to the lyrics--you've got to listen to the whole thing, so that's how that goes.
By John Croxton
Well on the last album you did, Go Tell It On The Mountain, you collaborated with a lot of different people: John Medeski, Robert Randolph, Aaron Neville, George Clinton... How did this all come about--did they approach you or did you approach them?
CF: Well the guys that produced the CD arranged that. We actually didn't have anything to do with that. We went along, because the company wanted us to produce an album--a Christmas CD, because we had never done it, and I'm glad we did because it's selling!
Well I'm glad you did as well--I've actually just gotten the chance to listen to it, so I'll definitely take that one back to the family over the holidays. Well, I don't want to take up too much more of your time, but just this year you got inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame--which is an incredible accomplishment by the way--but what does that mean to you after putting in six decades of work?
CF: Well to me it means that we have accomplished now whatever we hadn't accomplished yet. And our goal was to let people know that we sing, and we want you to know that in your homes, in your automobiles, we want you to know that the Blind Boys can sing. And most importantly, we can sing anything we want to sing. We could have sung rock 'n' roll, but we didn't want to sing that.
The Blind Boys of Alabama are currently touring coast to coast and will be playing select shows with Mavis Staples, John Medeski, Aaron Neville and more as part of their Go Tell It On The Mountain Tour. They are performing this Friday December 12 in San Francisco click Here For Tickets and make sure to Check Tour Dates for information on the Blind Boys extensive tour.
Interview by: Nathan Rodriguez
JamBase | Colorado
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