Published Jan 01, 2006If you're looking for a definition of soul, look no further than the Blind Boys Of Alabama. Since 1939, the gospel vocal group has remained committed to its original intention of simply spreading The Word through song. They were there when soul music and rock'n'roll were invented, but both genres only seemed to enhance the group's reputation, especially when artists like Ray Charles and Elvis showed their gospel roots.
Now after 60 years, the Blind Boys are an institution, yet they continue to adapt while essentially remaining true to the deep, timeless power of the songs they choose. That power remains evident when the three original members, Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott, harmonise with one another.
"We've always been happy just doing what we've been doing," Fountain says. "Then one day Ray Charles came along singing gospel songs with new words about his baby. We didn't like that too much at the time, but when we heard the sound we thought, Hmm, there's something here.'"
Ever since, the group has developed its sound by infusing their inherent rhythm with the energy of the blues, finally reaching a mainstream audience last year with the Grammy-winning Spirit Of The Century, featuring covers of the Rolling Stones and Tom Waits. That success is sure to be repeated with Higher Ground, a more R&B-flavoured set, with songs ranging from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Aretha Franklin's "Spirit In The Dark," and Prince's "The Cross." The backing is arguably more dynamic this time out too, courtesy of Ben Harper and sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph.
It's been a whirlwind year for Fountain, and he's clearly been enjoying it. "[Our success] sure hasn't made things worse," he jokes. "The group is getting better and better, which is why more people are listening to us. And when we can get up and sing before masses of people, that makes everybody feel better. It makes you feel good about your life, and that's the message we want to get to people. I love the Lord and the Lord loves me, so we all go hand in hand."
Fountain credits producer John Chelew for largely modernising the group's sound, but perhaps surprisingly he says that they have always felt compelled to stay in touch with contemporary music. "We picked all the songs from the material our producer presented to us because we have to be careful of what we sing. We don't want to cross the line, but we still want to do songs that we enjoy singing. You have to keep up with what's going on in the record world so you can feel good about what you're doing yourself. We listen to a lot of music and we know how to separate the good from the bad. Hopefully, we've picked good songs to sing."