Archive » December 14, 2006
On the Beat
By Steven Libowitz
AFTER 67 YEARS, THEY’RE STILL PLANTING SEEDS
Everybody marvels at how long the Rolling Stones have been together, but the British rockers are the new kids on the block compared to the Blind Boys of Alabama. The gospel group has been together since forming at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind back in 1939, with only rare personnel changes along the way.
Relegated initially to the traditional gospel circuit, the Blind Boys hit the pop charts in 2001 with the Grammy-winning CD “Spirit of the Century,” and have gone on to work with pop and soul stars of every stripe – from Solomon Burke to Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Ben Harper and Chrissie Hynde – on several CDs since. The 2004 entry, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” the Boys’ first ever Christmas release, has spawned an annual holiday tour – a stomping gospel revival that would have Bing Crosby spinning in his grave – which returns to the Marjorie Luke Theatre on December 21.
We spoke with founding member Jimmy Carter from his hotel room on the road recently.
Q. How have you managed to stay together so long so that the Blind Boys as a group qualifies for Social Security?
A. We never dreamed of anything like this….When we started out we were doing mostly mediocre shows. But really more in the last ten years, we realized that this might be at this level….We were going to continue on no matter. First thing is, we love what we’re doing. We came up together, we became like a family. And that keeps you going.
Have the members always gotten along, or is it something you figured out after 50 years about how not to fight?
We don’t get along now (laughs heartily). We have disagreements, but on the other side we’re friends. So we can agree to disagree – something perhaps politicians have never quite learned.
What happened 10 years ago that created the shift in popularity?
We got exposed to the mainstream of people. Back in the day we were only playing for black audiences. Then we did a stint on Broadway and that kind of helped. But really we started hitting a different market. We’re on a different circuit, and a different level. Our audiences are predominantly white. The interesting thing for us was we found out that the white people wanted this all along, but we weren’t allowed to give it to them. It was the segregated South. But since we’ve been exposed to them, they want it all the time.
So does it feel like vindication to finally reach the masses? Or are you resentful that they should have found you earlier? Or perhaps does it feel strange to suddenly be pop stars at 70?
My only reaction is that I’m just glad that we finally have a chance to sing to mainstream people. I’m glad to know they appreciate it, they love it and they react to it. That’s all I feel.
The Blind Boys have won Grammys with every album you put out since 2002 – four straight years. How does that feel?
The first one was amazing….(hesitates). I really can’t describe it. But as we did it year after year, we got used to it. We still feel good about it now, mind you. I’ve still got ‘em hanging up in my house. But we didn’t put out a new record this year, we thought we’d let the people want us again. We’re going into the studio in March again. We’re contemplating a country-gospel record. It’s just in the thinking stage, now, but we’d get people like George Jones, my favorite country music singer. I’d like to have Loretta Lynn, if we could.
For most of the group’s history you were singing mostly a cappella and pure gospel only, and staying away from bands and even soul singers like Sam Cooke. But in the last five years, you’ve made records with rock stars and soul singers, and now maybe country singers. What changed?
We’re trying to draw the young people in our music. So people like Ben Harper and Aaron Neville, young people like them, we asked them to help us out. I think we’ve now bridged the generation gap.
I’ll say. But what about the purity of the music, the age-old thought that rock ‘n’ roll is Saturday night, and gospel is Sunday morning? These guys are more Saturday, aren’t they?
Ah, now, yes, but remember that most of them have roots in gospel, they sprang from gospel. Ben Harper, Aaron Neville, Robert Randolph, they all came out of the church. They just chose another field. So we have no qualms working with them. When we work with them, they understand that if we cannot put the Blind Boys gospel to what we do with them, we can’t do it at all. It has to be our arrangement. We have the final say. And we put it through the message test. Sometimes we have them change the lyrics to make it into a gospel song. And they do because they love to work with us. Every time we ask them to join us, they don’t hesitate and they’ll do what we need. So we’re learning we can come together with those people even though they are secular artists, we can come together and produce a good record.
Much younger artists complain about touring. You guys have been on the road for decades, touring incessantly. How do you hold up?
Well, I think you answered that question yourself. When you’ve been doing it for so long, it just comes natural. It gets more difficult as the years go by – and we are still doing one hundred fifty to two hundred shows a year – but God is good to us and He still gives us strength to carry on. That’s how we find the energy to continue. We just love what we’re doing so the energy just keeps flowing. We get on that stage, start singing, listen to the audience response and that’s what motivates us.
There were three original members for a long time, but then George Scott passed away in 2005. Is it hard to continue as time marches on?
When Johnny Seals left, he was the bass singer, and the average quartet doesn’t even use a bass singer, so we could live without him. Then we were lucky enough to find a good replacement for George in Billy Bowers, who is a great singer. He went to the school in Alabama too, but a few years later than us. He’s not George, but he’s made his own place. We still miss George, of course, but I think he would be proud to hear us now.
But do you want the group to continue after all the original members are gone? Or should it stop?
Oh, I hope not. I hope someone will take it on and keep it going.
Do you want audiences to have a good time or do they need to get the message?
Oh, I hope they have a good time, but I hope they get the message too. We have a gospel message, a Christian message. We hope they receive it. All we can do is plant the seed. If it grows, good; if it doesn’t, well, not as good, but at least they’re entertained.
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