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The Blind Boys of Alabama: Seven decades of singing gospel

The Blind Boys of Alabama have won five Grammys and performed for three presidents over the group’s long career.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have won five Grammys and performed for three presidents over the group’s long career. COURTESY PHOTO

Stepping out on stage in wrap-around sunglasses and a crisp suit, Jimmy Carter greets the crowd with a warm “good evening.”

“My next words are, ‘The Blind Boys of Alabama do not like to sing to a conservative crowd. We like to sing to a noisy crowd,’ ” explained Carter, one of the legendary gospel group’s founding members.

“Even though we’re in a theater, even though we’re in a nightclub, I want you to feel like you’re in church because God is everywhere,” he said.

Carter and his fellow Blind Boys have been getting audiences excited since the late 1930s.

Over the years, the group has performed for three presidents, won five Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

The Blind Boys’ current lineup consists of Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore performing vocals; Eric “Ricky” McKinnie on drums; Joey Williams on lead guitar; Peter Levin on keyboards; and Tracy Pierce on bass.

“When we started out we had no idea that none of this would happen,” Carter said. “We had no idea that we would get all the accolades that we would.”

Long history

Originally formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Ala., the group started touring in 1944 as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers.

Years later, a promoter highlighted their friendly rivalry with another set of sight-challenged singers by billing them as the Blind Boys of Alabama versus the Blind Boys of Mississippi. The name stuck.

The Blind Boys scored their first big hit with 1948’s “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine.” The group quickly became a fixture on the gospel circuit.

“We started out in the segregated South singing to predominately black audiences,” Carter recalled. “You had to stay in these rundown rooming houses or these substandard black hotels. (But) we were determined to stick with it.”

Although other black performers encountered violent opposition in those racially charged times, Carter said, “We were never harassed. Nat King Cole came to Alabama and he was beaten up. That never happened to us.”

Nor, Carter said, was the group ever tempted to make the transition to secular music, as fellow gospel singer Sam Cooke and many of his contemporaries did in the 1950s.

“A lot of people started out as we did and they switched to rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “We said we wouldn’t deviate from our gospel roots.

“We grew up in a Christian environment in Christian homes. We told the Lord we would try to do a mission for him.”

Finding fame

The Blind Boys’ devotion to gospel music paid off in the 1980s, when the group appeared alongside Morgan Freeman in the Obie Award-winning musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” a gospel retelling of Sophocles’ classical tragedy “Oedipus at Colonus.”

“That was the turning point in the Blind Boys’ career that exposed us to the mainstream audiences,” Carter recalled. “We finally had a chance to sing to everybody.”

Over the last few decades, the Blind Boys have made the best of that opportunity.

The group snagged its first Grammy in 2001 with its album “Spirit in the Century.” More accolades followed, including lifetime achievement awards from the Grammys and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Last February, following past performances for presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, “We got to sing for the Obamas, so we’re batting 100,” Carter said.

“I never thought I would see a black president in my lifetime,” he said of President Barack Obama. “I got a chance to shake his hand. I got my picture taken with him.”

The years have also brought collaborations with scores of respected artists, from Eric Clapton and Curtis Mayfield to Ben Harper and Bonnie Raitt.

The Blind Boys’ 2009 album, “Duets,” saw the group teaming up with the likes of Lou Reed, Randy Travis, Charlie Musselwhite and Asleep at the Wheel.

According to Carter, the Bind Boys are currently in the studio recording a country-gospel album.

“All of my producers and writers, they know I love country music,” said the singer, who counts Merle Haggard and George Jones among his favorite stars. “I’ve been trying to get us to do a country album (and) I finally convinced them to try it.”

The as-yet-untitled album, due in stores in March, will feature guest appearances by Vince Gill and the Oak Ridge Boys among others. Tracks include “Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand” and “Family Bible.”

National tour

In between recording sessions, the Blind Boys are touring the nation with their annual holiday show, “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

Inspired by the group’s 2003 Christmas album, the set list features holiday favorites such as “Go Tell it On the Mountain,” “Silent Night” and “I Pray on Christmas,” mixed with traditional gospel tunes. But the biggest crowd pleaser is the fast-paced “Look Where He Brought Me From.”

“We call that ‘the drive song,’ ” Carter said with a chuckle.

His favorite part of each concert is the point at which he heads out the audience to shake hands and share hugs with cheering, clapping fans. He calls it “the highlight of my life.”

“We’ve had people come up to us and say that we touched their lives, that they accepted our message,” Carter said. “I always tell people, ‘If I can change just one life, it’s all worth it to me.’ ”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.

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