Crossing Over with The Blind Boys of Alabama
Gospel Singers Seek Higher Ground with New Album
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Sept. 1, 2002 -- The Blind Boys of Alabama first came to national attention in 1983, onstage during a production of The Gospel at Colonus, but they've been singing gospel music for more than 60 years.
Higher Ground, an album featuring a number of popular tunes they've converted to gospel, will be released this week. It's their 21st album in all, but only their second working with a full band.
As founding member Clarence Fountain tells Liane Hansen for Weekend Edition Sunday, mixing traditional gospel with contemporary music comes naturally to the Blind Boys. "Music is music," he says. Making gospel out of secular popular music is easy. "All you gotta do is keep the lines straight." By which he means, "clean it up."
For instance, on the Stevie Wonder-penned title tune, the Blind Boys simply made those lyrics written with a woman in mind apply instead to God. The record also features such popular tunes as "The Cross" by Prince and Aretha Franklin's 1970 hit "Spirit in the Dark" among other pop and traditional gospel songs.
On their 2001 album Spirit of the Century, the Blind Boys for the first time invited a full band to back them up. Their previous efforts, dating back to 1948, were either recorded a capella or featured spare instrumentation such as a single guitar. They kept the band for this album, and they once again invited some name musicians to the studio. Guitarist Ben Harper makes a return appearance, and for the first time, "sacred steel" guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph adds his talents to several tracks.
When Hansen asks what the Blind Boys learned from Randolph, Fountain points out that the singers are considerably older than the pedal-steel player, and that if anything, he learned from them. "I hope I taught him to beware," Fountain says. "(I told him), 'you're playing that steel guitar -- they'll have you over there in the rock and roll field, and you'll be done'."
NPR's Tavis Smiley talks with Blind Boys Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter
NPR's David D'Arcy's July 2001 story about the Blind Boys
The Blind Boys homepage