Formed in the late 1930s, The Blind Boys of Alabama predate Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Al Green. While a huge gospel sensation back in the 1940s and ’50s The Blind Boys moved into the mainstream in 2001 with the help of Goldsmith producer John Chelew and engineer Jimmy Hoyson. That year, the band released the Grammy-winning Spirit of the Century, the first of three consecutive Grammy awards. Self-financed by Goldsmith, Spirit of the Century was the group’s first album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and it was also the great Blind Boys album that Goldsmith had been hearing in his head for years.
Up to that point The Blind Boys had spent more than 40 years working mostly in the traditional gospel circuit, since forming at The Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. Secular audiences caught a glimpse of the group at the World’s Fair in Knoxville in 1982 and again in 1983 when they appeared in the hit musical drama The Gospel At Colonus, an Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway production. This modern classic also featured Morgan Freeman and was seen nationwide in the United States on PBS’s Great Performances.
The Boys caught the attention of more mainstream listeners through their 1992 album Deep River, produced by Booker T. Jones and featuring a transcendent version of Bob Dylan’s I Believe In You. The Blind Boys continued working with contemporary sounds in 1995’s live album, I Brought Him with Me and 1997’s funked-up Holding On, but it was Spirit of the Century that proved to be the turning point.
That album ignited what has proven one of the busiest and commercially successful periods of The Blind Boys’ career a period in which the group has reinvented itself while rewriting the definition of traditional Southern gospel. Their first of four albums for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, all recorded at the historic Capitol Records studios in Hollywood, Spirit featured a stunning version of Amazing Grace set to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun as well as carefully-selected covers of songs by The Rolling Stones Ben Harper and Tom Waits.
Spirit of the Century was a triumph, a blend of gospel, blues, soul and folk that won the 2001 Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Featuring such top musicians such as bluesman John Hammond and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley. The disc became the best-selling album of The Blind Boys’ career and turned these septuagenarians into folk heroes in hipster circles landing them the opening slot on Peter Gabriel’s 2002 worldwide arena tour.
The Blind Boys’ version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” featured on Spirit of the Century also became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO TV series The Wire. On the big screen The Blind Boys performed their version of Soldier also from Spirit in the 2002 Cuba Gooding Jr./Beyonce Knowles film The Fighting Temptations.
Further acclaim and another Grammy win for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album followed with 2002’s Higher Ground which included songs penned by Jimmy Cliff, Prince, Ben Harper (who added vocals and guitar), Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield. Featuring the backing of Robert Randolph and the Family Band Higher Ground also found The Blind Boys singing the 23rd Psalm to George Clinton’s You and Your Folks. Their version of Harper’s “I Shall Not Walk Alone” was featured in an episode of the ABC prime time hit Lost. That same year The Blind Boys were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and presented with the Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
In 2003 The Blind Boys scored their third consecutive Grammy win for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album for Go Tell It on the Mountain a star-studded Christmas album. Already considered a holiday classic Go Tell It On the Mountain featured Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Chrissie Hynde, Solomon Burke, George Clinton, Aaron Neville, Robert Randolph and more. (A concert version of this album featuring many of the guests from the CD was also featured on PBS as a 2004 Christmas special and a DVD of that concert was released by Eagle Rock Entertainment in February 2005.)
The Christmas album also gave the Blind Boys an opportunity to give something to others in need. With two original founding members of the band Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter suffering from type two diabetes, The Blind Boys donated a portion of the proceeds from the sales of Go Tell It on the Mountain to the American Diabetes Association for whom they became spokesmen in 2003.
Interest in The Blind Boys of Alabama from other musicians has been at an all time high with the group augmenting its own award-winning albums with guest appearances from a distinguished and diverse group including Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Ibrahim Ferrer (Buena Vista Social Club), Solomon Burke, Asleep at the Wheel and Jools Holland, formerly of Squeeze. They were also tapped by Walt Disney Productions to sing a Phil Collins tune in the animated feature film Brother Bear.
In 2004, a session with Ben Harper spilled into a full-fledged album and another hit: There Will Be a Light. Once again delivering The Blind Boys heaps of acclaim the disc found the group joined by Harper’s own band The Innocent Criminals and combined traditionals with songs penned by Harper.
2004 also found The Blind Boys reprising their role in a new 20th anniversary version of The Gospel at Colonus which starred Charles S. Dutton and The Soul Stirrers during its late October/early November run at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.
As they reached new levels of respect, acclaim and commercial success in recent years one thing has remained: The group’s mission to do God’s work in new and inspiring ways. In doing so they’re not only expanding the very definitions of gospel and soul but also furthering a legacy that is unmatched by any other traditional artist that has remained true to the gospel path.
While the sound of traditional soul gospel is still unmistakably at its core, Atom Bomb, the group’s 25 album, includes The Blind Boys’ most adventurous forays into pop music yet featuring loops, raps and blues riffs.
Spirit of the Century (Real World Records, 2001)
You’ll Never Walk Alone / True Convictions (2001)
Higher Ground (Real World Records, 2002)
Amazing Grace (2003)
Go Tell it On the Mountain (Real World Records, 2003)
There Will Be a Light, with Ben Harper (Virgin Records, 2004)
Live at the Apollo, with Ben Harper (2005)
Atom Bomb (Real World Records, 2005)
Just a Closer Walk with Thee,(2006)
Down in New Orleans (TimeLife, 2008)
Enlightenment (The Great American Music Co., 2009)
Duets (Saguaro Road Records, 2009)
Faith Moves Mountains (2010)
Take the High Road (Saguaro Road Records, 2011)
I’ll Find a Way (Sony Masterworks, 2013)
Talkin’ Christmas!, with Taj Mahal (Sony Masterworks, 2014)
Almost Home (BBOA Records, 2017)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.