Formed some six and a half decades ago, The Blind Boys of Alabama are the Iron
Men of the music industry. They predate Elvis, Little Richard, and Al Green.
Yet, even in their 70s, they are still at the top of the gospel charts and have
earned impressive honors by winning consecutive Grammy Awards in recent
While a huge gospel sensation back in the 1940s and ?50s, The Blind Boys moved
into the mainstream in 2001 with the help of Goldsmith, producer John Chelew,
and engineer Jimmy Hoyson. That year, the band released the Grammy-decorated
Spirit of the Century, the first of three consecutive Grammy-winning recordings.
Self-financed by Goldsmith,
Spirit of the Century was the group?s first album
Peter Gabriel?s Real World label, and it was also the great Blind Boys album
that Goldsmith had been hearing in his head for years.
Up to that point, The Blind Boys had spent more than 40 years working mostly in
the traditional gospel circuit, since forming at The Alabama Institute for the
Negro Blind in 1939. Secular audiences caught a glimpse of the group at the
World?s Fair in Knoxville in 1982 and again in 1983, when they appeared in the
smash hit musical drama The Gospel At Colonus, an Obie Award-winning
Off-Broadway and Broadway production. This modern classic also featured Morgan
Freeman and was seen nationwide on PBS?s Great Performances.
The Boys caught the ears of more mainstream listeners via their Grammy nominated
Deep River, produced by Booker T. Jones and featuring a transcendent
version of Bob Dylan?s I Believe In You. The Blind Boys continued flirting with
contemporary sounds with 1995?s roof-raising live album
I Brought Him with Me and 1997?s funked-up Holding On, but it was
Spirit of the Centur that proved to
be the turning point.
That album ignited what has proven one of the busiest and commercially
successful periods of The Blind Boys? career, a period in which the group has
reinvented itself while rewriting the definition of traditional Southern gospel.
Their first of four albums for Peter Gabriel?s Real World label, all recorded at
the historic Capitol Records studios in Hollywood,
Spirit featured a stunning
version of Amazing Grace set to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun, as well
as carefully-selected covers of songs by The Rolling Stones, Ben Harper, and Tom
Spirit of the Century was a triumph, a blend of gospel, blues, soul, and folk
that won the 2001 Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Featuring such
top-shelf players as bluesman John Hammond and multi-instrumentalist David
Lindley, the disc became the best-selling album of The Blind Boys? career, and
turned these septuagenarians into folk heroes in hipster circles, landing them
the opening slot on Peter Gabriel?s 2002 worldwide arena tour.
The Blind Boys?
version of Tom Waits? Way Down in the Hole, featured on
Spirit of the Century
also became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. On the big
screen The Blind Boys performed their version of Soldier, also from Spirit, in
the 2002 Cuba Gooding Jr./Beyonce Knowles film The Fighting Temptations.
Further acclaim and another Grammy win for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album
followed with 2002?s
Higher Ground, which included songs penned by Jimmy Cliff,
Prince, Ben Harper (who added vocals and guitar), Stevie Wonder, and Curtis
Mayfield. Featuring the backing of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Higher
Ground also found The Blind Boys singing the 23rd Psalm to George Clinton?s You
and Your Folks. Their version of Harper?s I Shall Not Walk Alone was recently
featured in an episode of the ABC prime time hit Lost.
That same year, The Blind Boys were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame
and presented with the Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association for Best
Traditional Gospel Album.
In 2003, The Blind Boys scored their third consecutive Grammy win for Best
Traditional Soul Gospel Album for
Go Tell It on the Mountain, a star-studded
Christmas album. Already considered a holiday classic, Go Tell It On the
Mountain featured Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, Michael Franti of Spearhead,
Chrissie Hynde, Solomon Burke, George Clinton, Aaron Neville, Robert Randolph,
and more. (A concert version of this album, featuring many of the guests from
the CD, was also featured on PBS as a 2004 Christmas special, and a DVD of that
concert will be released by Eagle Rock Entertainment in February 2005.)
The Christmas album also gave the Blind Boys an opportunity to give something to
others in need. With two original founding members of the band, Clarence
Fountain and Jimmy Carter suffering from type two diabetes, The Blind Boys
donated a portion of the proceeds from the sales of
Go Tell It on the Mountain
to the American Diabetes Association, for whom they became spokesmen in 2003.
In recent years, interest in The Blind Boys of Alabama from other
musicians has been at an all time high, with the group augmenting its own
award-winning albums with guest appearances from a distinguished and diverse
Gabriel, Lou Reed,
Ibrahim Ferrer (Buena Vista Social
Club), Solomon Burke, Asleep at the Wheel, and Jools Holland, formerly of
Squeeze. They were also tapped by Walt Disney Productions to sing a Phil
Collins-penned tune in the animated feature film Brother Bear.
In 2004, a session with Ben Harper spilled into a full-fledged album and another
There Will Be a Light. Once again delivering The Blind Boys heaps of
acclaim, the disc found the group joined by Harper?s own band, The Innocent
Criminals, and combined traditionals with songs penned by Harper. Nominated for
an amazing three Grammys this year, the album also saw The Blind Boys break The
Billboard Top 100 for the first time in the group?s history.
2004 also found The Blind Boys reprising their role in a new, 20th anniversary
version of The Gospel at Colonus, which starred Charles S. Dutton and The Soul
Stirrers during its late October/early November run at the famed Apollo Theater
As they?ve reached new levels of respect, acclaim, and commercial success in
recent years, one thing has remained: The group?s mission to do God?s work in
new and inspiring ways. In doing so, they?re not only expanding the very
definitions of gospel and soul, but also bolstering a legacy that is unmatched
by any other traditional artist that has remained true to the gospel path.
While the sound of traditional soul gospel is still unmistakably at its core,
Atom Bomb ? the group?s 2005 album ? includes The Blind Boys? most adventurous
forays into pop music yet, featuring loops, raps, and roaring blues riffs. The
disc includes an exuberant version of the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray tune Demons,
featuring rapper The Gift of Gab from Blackalicious, while Los Lobos guitarist
David Hidalgo and blues harp icon Charlie Musselwhite help recast Norman
Greenbaum?s gospel-rock classic Spirit In The Sky as a raw, Detroit-style
The 10-track disc also includes a joyous rendition of Eric Clapton/Blind Faith?s
Presence Of The Lord, featuring the legendary Billy Preston on Hammond B3, as
well as The Blind Boys? spin on such traditional tunes as Old Blind Barnabus (a
song suggested to the group by Tom Waits), I Know I?ve Been Converted, Talk
About Suffering, and Moses. The title song, meanwhile, is a remake of an early
Cold War-era Soul Stirrers? tune that proves uncannily relevant some 55 years
?What makes Atom Bomb so evocative is that it merges the most traditional,
stark, and intimate aspects of the Boys with some of the most futuristic
trappings we?ve used to date,? notes executive producer Chris Goldsmith.