Acclaimed gospel band still spreading the faith

“When the Blind Boys started out, we weren’t figuring on any kind of accolades or anything. But we’re proud of the recognition we’ve gotten over the years,” says Jimmy Carter, the lead singer of the six-time Grammy Award-winning gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama. “It made me realize that just because you’re blind, it does not limit you from what you want to do.”

Speaking on his cell phone between bites of a fish sandwich at a noisy New York deli, James “Jimmy” Carter, 86, is the last original member of the acclaimed vocal ensemble. For more than 70 years, the Blind Boys of Alabama (formerly known as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama) has been singing the praises of the Lord, issuing forth a mighty message of old-time religion in a holy-roller style that is known as “hard gospel.”

The group has had plenty of opportunities to cash in on fame and fortune. The closest they came to the pop charts was 2002’s “Spirit of the Century,” which explored the connection between gospel and blues on songs by Tom Waits and others. But Clarence Fountain, the now-deceased longtime leader of the group, would have no part of selling out.

“I knew there was more money in rock and roll than there was in gospel, I knew that,” he told me in 2002. “But me and the Lord made a pact, and I promised that if he did certain things for me, I would never ever turn my back. I meant that.”

Fountain, a titan in the gospel world, died in June of this year. He had retired from touring in 2007.

“I’m the only one left,” Carter now says of the original lineup.

Carter had teamed up with Fountain and fellow student George Scott in 1939 while attending the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind at Talladega. The trio, who had been taught to read music in Braille, were standouts in a school glee club.

Fountain’s 2007 retirement didn’t slow down the gospel group as Carter stepped into the role of lead singer, nor did Fountain’s recent death cause the group to veer from their gospel path.

“To lose him was a shock,” Carter says. “But we’re gonna keep going on. That’s what he would have wanted.”

This summer, for the first time since 2004, the group performed the African-American musical “Gospel at Colonus” in Central Park. The hit show had a brief run on Broadway in 1988 and aired as a PBS-TV special. Also this year, the group headlined the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, played to a hipster-friendly crowd at the Pickathon festival in Happy Valley, Oregon, released a new album, “Almost Home,” and contributed a cover of the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” to “Small Town, Big Sound,” a tribute to the legendary Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama.

The Blind Boys are currently in the midst of an extensive national tour that brings them to the Mystic Theatre on Dec. 21, where they will perform a Christmas show composed of traditional gospel songs and holiday favorites.

It has, Carter admits, been a long road. As a child, Carter started singing “around the house, or at least they say I was doing that,” he recalls with a hearty laugh. At seven, Carter’s family enrolled him in the school for the blind. Two years later, he teamed up with his classmates. The group, then known as Happyland Jubilee Singers, won a local Battle of the Blind Boys, and first performed professionally in 1944 for African-American servicemen at an Army training camp.

“At that time, the South was very segregated,” Carter says. “You have to remember that, so we were allowed to sing only to black people. We were not allowed to sing for white audiences. Now, of course, we can go anywhere. People love us. But it took us years before we were able to give it to them, that’s all.”

Over the years, the group became well established within the gospel community. “Gospel at Colonus,” in which the members collectively portrayed Oedipus, was their mainstream breakthrough.

“We took that show to Broadway (with actor Morgan Freeman as the narrator) and that took us into the mainstream,” Carter says. “That’s when everyone really got to know us.”

These days, the Blind Boys are renowned for emotionally powerful performances that often conclude with the members strolling through the audience and leading fans in jubilant song.

“My greatest joy is going out on that stage and talking to a crowd of people and letting them know we’re glad to be there and that we’re grateful to them for coming out,” Carter says of his long career as a performer. “I love to play with the crowd. When I say ‘play,’ I have to feel them out until I know I have them in my hands.

“We’ve had people come up to us and say that our music has been a great inspiration,” he adds. “That makes us want to do even more. So, we’ve been around a while. I hope we have a little more time left, but we’ll see.”

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