(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – The Blind Boys of Alabama, who gave one of the most memorable performances ever seen at the Mahaiwe Theatre – or anywhere – when they performed there in 2002 under the auspices of Club Helsinki, return to the venue almost exactly a decade later on Sunday, March 25, 2012, at 7 p.m., to see if lightning can strike twice on the same concert stage.
The Blind Boys that will be performing on Sunday aren’t the same group that performed 10 years ago at the Mahaiwe. In the intervening years, founding member Jimmy Carter has taken over as lead vocalist of the ensemble, as he has watched as one-by-one his cofounders have either retired or died. In 2006, Clarence Fountain, the group’s former long-time lead vocalist and founding member limited his touring for health reasons. Founding member George Scott died on March 9, 2005, at the age of 75. Another founding member, Johnny Fields, died on November 12, 2009.
Celebrated by the Grammys and the National Endowment for the Arts with Lifetime Achievement Awards, inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, sung for two presidents in the White House, and winners of five Grammy Awards, the Blind Boys have attained the highest levels of achievement in a career that spans over 70 years and shows no signs of diminishing. Longevity, personnel changes, and major awards aside, the Blind Boys have earned praise for their remarkable interpretations of everything from traditional gospel favorites to contemporary spiritual material by acclaimed songwriters such as Curtis Mayfield, Ben Harper, Eric Clapton, Prince, and Tom Waits. The Blind Boys’ live shows are roof-raising musical events that appeal to audiences of all cultures, as evidenced by an international itinerary that has taken them to virtually every continent.
The Blind Boys of Alabama formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. The group toiled for almost 40 years almost exclusively on the black gospel circuit, playing in churches, auditoriums, and even stadiums across the country.
Their recorded output, reaching back to 1948 with their hit “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine” on the Veejay label, is widely recognized as being influential for many gospel, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll artists.
The Blind Boys had their own chance to “cross over” to popular music in the 1950s, along with their gospel friend and contemporary Sam Cooke, but stayed true to their calling.
In the 1960s, they joined the Civil Rights movement, performing at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King. They toiled in the vineyards through the 1970s as the world of popular music began to pass them by.
But in 1983, their career reached a turning point with their crucial role in the smash hit and Obie Award-winning play The Gospel at Colonus, which brought the Blind Boys timeless sound to an enthusiastic new audience.
In the 1990s they received two Grammy nominations and performed at the White House. In recent years the Blind Boys were awarded five Grammy Awards and their musical brethren have paid homage to their legacy and their continued relevance by asking them to contribute and collaborate on new projects. The Blind Boys have appeared on recordings with Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis, k.d. lang, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Charlie Musselwhite, Susan Tedeschi, Solomon Burke, Marty Stuart, Asleep at the Wheel and many others.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have profoundly influenced an entire generation (or two) of gospel, soul, R&B and rock musicians and are still blazing trails after all these years.
Much in the world has changed since the original version of the Blind Boys of Alabama first raised their voices together in 1939. Today, more than 70 years later, founding member Jimmy Carter can look back on a career far beyond what he and his colleagues could imagine at that time. Yet throughout this long adventure, they kept one secret to themselves.
“All my life, I’ve loved country music,” confesses Carter. “I was raised up around it. Back in the 1940s, I remember listening to Hank Williams and so many others. Their voices were great. The writers were great. And every song had a meaning. I still have loads of country music in my home and I play it all the time. As a matter fact, I’ve got it on XM radio as we speak.”
Though the group has recorded and performed with a few country artists, along with others as diverse as Ben Harper, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel and Prince, they never crossed the line and committed to doing a project inspired by the country genre until the release of Take The High Road. That landmark recording draws from modern and traditional country to enrich the group’s gospel-rooted sound with fresh and illuminating insight.