Telluride Blues & Brews: Blind Boys Of Alabama
Please scroll down to the bottom of the story to listen to my interview with the iconic Jimmy Carter of The Blind Boys of Alabama.
In 1944, the Allies invade Normandy on D-Day (June 6).
FDR is reelected President, beating Republican challenger Thomas Dewey.
The St. Louis Cardinals take the World Series over the St. Louis Browns, 4-2.
And the Blind Boys of Alabama take it on road, determined to “spiritually uplift audiences.”
Did they achieved their goal?
The answer is a resounding, all-caps, YES.
The Blind Boys of Alabama are recognized worldwide as living legends of gospel music. Celebrated by The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with Lifetime Achievement Awards, inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and winners of five Grammy® Awards, the group touched the sun in a career that spans over 70 years.
The Blind Boys’ loose definition of gospel music has allowed the singers to measure the spiritual dimensions of rock and pop songs, blues, funk and folk and all stops in between. Rather than being a group of singers who borrowed from the decades-old gospel traditions, they they are a group who helped define and cement those traditions over two centuries.
In 2009, the Blind Boys were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Presidents Clinton (1994), President Bush (2002) and President Obama (2010) invited the group to the White House, along with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole and other iconic songsters, for “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.”
“The Blind Boys of Alabama gave one of the night’s most fiery performances on the old spiritual ‘I’m Free at Last’,” raved USA Today.
The list of accolades and achievements keeps piling up.
Thanks to appearances on “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night with David Letterman,
the Grammy® Awards telecast, “60 Minutes, “and on their own holiday PBS Specials, millions have enjoyed performances by the Blind Boys.
And their live shows are renowned: roof- raising musical happenings that appeal to audiences of all cultures on every continent.
Next stop, Telluride.
The Blind Boys of Alabama – touring today, Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinnie, Ben Moore, Joey Williams, and Paul Beasely – perform at the 22nd annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, Friday, September 18 – Sunday, September 20, 2015, in a power-packed line-up that also includes headliners ZZ Top, Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings, and Gregg Allman, plus John Hiatt & The Combo, Taj Mahal Trio, Anders Osborne, Blackberry Smoke, The Revivalists, Otis Taylor’s Hey Joe Opus, Rich Robinson and more.
The Blind Boys of Alabama met at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939.
To put that date in perspective, the get-together predates the attack on Pearl Harbor and the development of the 12-inch vinyl album (only ‘78s’ were available at the time). When they began singing together, “separate but equal” was still a sad summary of race relations in the United States.
Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s— when blacks were denied the use of whites-only water fountains, bathrooms, and restaurants— The Blind Boys persevered, even flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel.
During the 1960s, the group sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helping to provide a soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement.
During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, gospel groups that had originated in the church began recording secular music. Not The Blind Boys of Alabama. They stuck to their guns – and calling.
“We sing gospel music,” said Carter, a founding member and the Blind Boys’ leader for the past five years.“That’s what we do. We’re not going to ever deviate from that.”
The smash hit and Obie Award-winning play, The Gospel at Colonus, released in 1985, helped The Blind Boys achieve international success and a wider new audience.
Few would have expected the group to still be going strong—stronger perhaps than ever— so many years after they first joined voices, but they’ve proved as productive and as musically ambitious in the 21st century as they were in the 20th century.
In 2001, The Blind Boys released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and winning their first Grammy.
The next year, they backed Gabriel on his album Up and joined him on a world tour, although a bigger break may have come when David Simon chose their cover of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as the theme song for the first season of The Wire. (The HBO series remains critically regarded as the greatest television show ever aired.)
Subsequent Grammy-winning albums had The Blind Boys working with Robert Randolph & the Family Band (2002’s Higher Ground); a plethora of special guests including Waits and Mavis Staples (2003’s Go Tell It On The Mountain); Ben Harper (2004’s There Will Be a Light); and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2007’s Down in New Orleans).
In recent years, the list of music industry luminaries who sought out The Blind Boys to collaborate includes Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, k.d. lang, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Susan Tedeschi, and Solomon Burke.
Nearly 75 years after they hit their first notes together, The Blind Boys of Alabama remain exceptional not just for the longevity of the group, but also for the depth and breadth of their catalog and relevance to contemporary roots music.
“We appreciate the accolades and we thank God for them,” added Carter, “But we’re not interested in money or anything other than singing gospel. We had no idea when we started that we would make it this far. The secret to our longevity is, we love what we do. And when you love what you do, that keeps you motivated. That keeps you alive.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama have clearly had a profound influence on an entire generation (or two or three) of gospel, soul, R&B, and are they still blazing trails.
Seems The Blind Boys will always “Find A Way.”
(I’ll Find A Way is the name of the group’s latest release.)
To learn more, please click the “play” button and listen to my chat with Jimmy Carter.
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