Published on June 20th, 2018 | by Inspirations with Liz Black
Reflection on the Life Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama (November 28, 1929 – June 3, 2018)
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Alabama Music Hall of Famers, earned their keep as one of the longstanding gospel groups with over 70 years of performing together. For the band of five, their path was forged by the grit of sound from the church, was paved by the cement of their physical bond and was traveled with the guiding voice of Clarence Fountain. Clarence’s voice is a reminder that Rock and Roll comes from Black bodies and most certainly is rooted in the gospel musical expression.
His formidable vocals both soothed and stirred like velvet – smooth with just enough friction to provide a spiritually tactile experience. That is one of the works of a great baritone. Clarence’s vocals climbed between screams, shouts and soothing melodies and his delivery of them confirms the ability of a church vocalist to be the preacher’s best hype man, opening and closing act. Clarence’s lead vocals underscored and put to emotion the good word.
“Too Close To Heaven” – By The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama
The recent passing of Clarence received widespread attention across publications and online platforms. Clarence passed away June 3rd 2018 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana from what was described by The Blind Boys’ manager Charles Driebe, as complications from diabetes. Fountain had been one of two of the last remaining members of the original group which at one point was called Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Jimmy Carter, now upholds the mantle.
Clarence Fountain was blind, but not visionless. Born in 1929 to a sharecropper, he lost his eyesight at the age of 2 as a result of a caregiver attempting to treat his eye infection with a lye-based formula. What he lacked in sight, he gained in vocal ability. Clarence went on to attend the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega in 1937 around the age of 8 and joined the boys’ choir. There he met Jimmy Carter, George Scott, Velma Bozman, Olice Thomas and Johnny Fields and would later form a group as teenagers. The quintet, originally called the Happyland Jubilee Singers would perform at soldier training camps.
Eventually dropping out of school to tour, the gospel circuit regulars landed their hit record “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine,” in 1948 which was released on Veejay Records. That same year, Happyland Jubilee Singers were billed in a concert with the Jackson Harmoneers from Mississippi. The show was promoted by a Newark, New Jersey concert promoter as a “Battle of the Blind Boys”. The concert was a success, both groups retained their names and continued a relationship that involved exchanging members and performing together.
“I Can See Everybody’s Mother, But I Can’t See Mine” – The Blind Boys of Alabama (1948)
The musical landscape that was once culturally defined by the gospel genre and socially defined by the Civil Rights movement, left the Blind Boys behind. As Clarence took a stance of resistance to the crossover and Pop trajectory many of his contemporaries and friends (such as Ray Charles were taking, he illustrated that: “There was no way we were going to go pop or rock,” Fountain said. “Who needed it? Our bellies were full, we had no headaches, we were happy. At least I was happy, singing real gospel.” In a 1992 San Diego Tribune interview with Fountain, he elaborated that:
“Everyone has their own religious beliefs, and I didn’t want to do (secular music). And I have no regrets, because if I’d made a million dollars I probably would’ve thrown it away. When the Lord takes his hands off you, you’re in trouble. Sam (Cooke) isn’t here anymore; we’re still rolling along.” As told to the Oxford American in 2010, Clarence described the time he and Sam Cooke were offered contracts at the same time, yet he declined.
“Goodbye Mother” – Five Blind Boys of Alabama
True to the good word, true to conviction and committed to song, Clarence was a tree planted by the water. When the tide of the river was low, he planted seeds in nearby gardens. The near obscurity the band almost fell into a few times in its career was revived in a fashion similar to artists who have been in the same position – to a younger white audience that knew little to nothing about the Blind Boys’ music. In 1982, the group teamed up with Philadelphia International soul star producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff for their gospel music imprint Peace International, to record the album I’m a Soldier for the Lord. Their 1993 album Deep River, produced by Booker T. Jones was a call to a new audience.
Blind Boys of Alabama – “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
The next project foreshadowed the trajectory of the remainder of Clarence and the Blind Boys’ careers as well as Clarence’s embrace of expanding the sacred in a new direction. The Lee Bruer-directed production “Gospel at Colonus” premiered in 1983. Set inside a Black Pentacostal church the production, a musical interpretation of Sophocales “Oedipus at Colonus”, casted the Blind Boys of Alabama simultaneously as Oedipus. Winning two Obie Awards, a Tony and Pulitzer nominations, the Blind Boys were set to explore a new stratosphere.
The accolades from the 1990s on were many; a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, 10 Grammy nominations and five consecutive Grammys Awards including a lifetime achievement award. From performing with Kanye West during his 2005 performance of “Jesus Walks”, to collaborating with Lou Reed, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, k.d. Lang, Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, Tune-Yards, Ben Harper, Aaron Neville. and many more, the sound of The Blind Boys of Alabama touched many people. They continue to tour til today, although Fountain stopped touring in 2007 due to diabetes.
Way Down In The Hole-Blind Boys Of Alabama
The mark of Clarence’s impact as a musical leader was felt throughout the group’s decades-long career. His principles helped see both the spirit and the brand of the Blind Boys of Alabama succeed through rough and steady terrain. He proved that they did not have to be chameleons for survival, but that when they seek ye first the kingdom of His love, make Him first in everything you do and If you’ll just trust and never doubt what He said all good things will be added unto you.
The Blind Boys Of Alabama – Something Got A Hold