The Blind Boys of Alabama make a joyful noise

Friday, November 16, 2007 | 1:00 p.m. CST; updated 4:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Blind Boys of Alabama singer Clarence Fountain sings at the Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival on Sept. 7, 2007.

The Blind Boys of Alabama have been making gospel music since 1939. Throughout its career, the group has known tragedy and success.

In 2001, the group won its first Grammy in the Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album category for the album “Spirit of the Century.” That was the beginning of a string of Grammy-winning albums that continued through 2005, when tragedy struck. One of the group’s founding members, George Scott, died unexpectedly.

Scott had been planning to go back on tour with the Blind Boys after taking a break for health reasons. His death left the rest of the group wondering about the future.

“Our next show was the worst to date,” said Joey Williams, the Blind Boys’ lead guitarist and backup singer. “Something wasn’t there when we played, we were making all kinds of mistakes. We were a grieving group.”

But the group’s faith kept it going until two new members, Billy Bowels and Tracy Pierce, signed on. “God sent us some singers to keep us going,” said Jimmy Carter, one of the three lead singers and an original group member.

The Blind Boys formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. For many years the group played the traditional gospel circuit — churches and outdoor gatherings — to mostly black audiences. “Our message was to tell the world about Jesus Christ,” Carter said.

The group’s three primary singers usually remain seated during shows. When they do stand to sing, someone from the group’s crew stands behind them and holds on to one of their shoulders so they don’t fall off the stage. When Carter stands, his body often starts shaking from excitement as he reaches a hand to the sky.

The group made a name for itself in America decades ago, but its music received new levels of attention in response to the Grammy wins. Success has not diverted the Blind Boys from their gospel roots. Instead, the group’s members say they believe their success has been a blessing from God. The Bible says that praising God’s name will draw people to come listen, Carter said, so the group hasn’t had to divert from its gospel sound to become popular.

The group’s members admit they rarely go to church on Sunday anymore. But, then again, they say they feel like they’re “at church everyday” when they perform, said Rickey McKinney, drummer and backup singer.

The Blind Boys don’t like being labeled a band because it sounds too secular, Carter said.

“We are gospel messengers from God,” Carter said. “We love playing for people because it’s fun but we also want people to get the gospel message.”

At the Roots ‘N’ Blues ‘N’ BBQ Festival in Columbia this year, the Blind Boys took the stage in Peace Park. Before the group launched into its first tune, Carter told the crowd: “We’re singing gospel music tonight, and if you want to hear anything else you’re in the wrong place.”

While the band’s members are getting on in years, they still perform with energy and devotion.

“God gives us the energy,” Carter sad. “We want to sing until he says ‘enough.’ I don’t know when he’ll say it, but I hope it’s no time soon.”

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