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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The Blind Boys of Alabama started making music together more than 60 years ago. In 1944, the group of seven singers performed in black churches, schools and auditoriums, but since that somewhat humble start, the group has earned four Grammy awards and the admiration of generations of music lovers. They've performed all over the country and the world. Most recently, The Blind Boys of Alabama paid a special visit to New Orleans to make their newest album, titled "Down in New Orleans."

(Soundbite of song, "You Better Mind")

MARTIN: Joining us in Studio 5B are Jimmy Carter and Ricky McKinnie of The Blind Boys of Alabama. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JIMMY CARTER (The Blind Boys of Alabama): Hello, hello, and we thank you for having us here.

Mr. RICKY McKINNIE (The Blind Boys of Alabama): Yeah, we're just glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Mr. Carter, I understand that you are one of the founders of the group. So how did you all meet?

Mr. CARTER: Well, we met at this school for the blind in a little town in Alabama balled Talladega, and so blind kids from all over the state came to that school. That's how we met up. We started singing together and listening to music, and we decided to go out on our own, June 10, 1944.

MARTIN: Did you always know you could sing?

Mr. CARTER: I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You didn't need anybody to tell you that, huh?

Mr. CARTER: I was singing around the house when I was four and five years old. I had a little tobacco box as my microphone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: I was singing, you know, being my own DJ.

MARTIN: How did you all get together with the other fellows though? Did you all just - was it just hanging out together, just knowing who could sing and who couldn't sing?

Mr. CARTER: Yeah, yeah. We started off singing in a mixed, big choir, and then we left the choir and started singing in a male chorus. So we found out that we could do pretty good, and so we decided to try to make - go professional.

MARTIN: Would you tell me a little bit about the early days, though, performing in the segregated South? Did you - I mean, did you have a sense of, you know, where you were and how you were being treated and things of that sort?

Mr. CARTER: Yeah, well, you know, we knew our place. We were singing in predominately black churches, schools and auditoriums, I can say in the segregated South. It was segregated big-time back then. And you know, it was hard. You did a program, you were tired, and you couldn't find a decent place to stay. So you had to stay in, you know, run-down places. But we were dedicated, and we were determined to stick it out, and that's what the school did for us. It taught us patience, it taught us endurance, and it taught us perseverance, and so - I guess that's how we accomplished what we have accomplished today.

MARTIN: Mr. McKinnie, I think you've been with the group for something like 20 years now - more than 20 years. Do I have that right?

Mr. McKINNIE: Yeah, I've been here for a while. I've been with the Blind Boys most of my life, but I'm just glad to be a part of the organization.

MARTIN: What made you want to join the group?

Mr. McKINNIE: Well you know, the Blind Boys have traveled all over the world. I have traveled with The Blind Boys throughout the United States, and they called me to come to go to Australia. So I wanted to go to Australia. I always wanted to see other places, so I came and here I am today.

MARTIN: What about you? Did you always know you could sing?

Mr. McKINNIE: I always felt I could sing, yeah.

MARTIN: And when you all first began singing together, it was in a style called jubilee, right, Mr. Carter?

Mr. CARTER: It was jubilee, yeah. It was a glorified rap, really.

MARTIN: What? I mean we all didn't invent that? We thought we invented it.

Mr. CARTER: No, you didn't, we did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: We just sang out, and you'll talk (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Can you give me an example?

Mr. CARTER: Well you know, jubilee, you know, it's - like I say, it's a form of rap, you know, like - da da da da da da da da da da - you know, just like that.

MARTIN: Just like that? Okay. In fact, wasn't the first name of the group The Happyland Jubilee Singers? Is that about right?

Mr. CARTER: When the group started out we were called The Happyland Jubilee Singers. The Blind Boys name came up - that's another story altogether.

MARTIN: So how did the name The Blind Boys happen then?

Mr. CARTER: Well, it was another group, The Jackson Harmonias out of Mississippi, they were also blind, and this promoter in Newark, New Jersey had a brainstorm. He said, I'm gonna get these two groups together and I'm going to call one The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Blind Boys of Mississippi, and we're going to have a battle of music among the two.

MARTIN: A face-off, smackdown.

Mr. CARTER: Yeah, so he got the groups together, and the name has stuck until this day.

MARTIN: But how do you feel about that now? If you don't mind my asking. Because you are a grown man.

Mr. CARTER: Oh, that's - we don't mind that.

MARTIN: You don't mind?

Mr. CARTER: No.

MARTIN: You never thought about changing it - the Visually Impaired African-Americans of...

Mr. CARTER: No, we love The Blind Boys.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. CARTER: And I think everybody else loves it, too.

MARTIN: Okay, and then you kind of moved from the jubilee style into sort of more of the gospel style...

Mr. CARTER: Well, yeah. We graduated from jubilee, although we still do jubilee, and then we came to traditional gospel music. Now we do it all. We do jubilee, we do traditional gospel, we do contemporary sometimes, even though personally I don't like that, but you change with the times. You know, some people like contemporary, so we have to - we try to please everybody.

MARTIN: What don't you like about contemporary?

Mr. CARTER: Well, I don't want to go into that.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. McKinnie, do you have a favorite genre?

Mr. McKINNIE: Well, you know, music is just music, and at the time when The Blind Boys got started, jubilee was the music of the time. As the eras began to move forward, I just think that contemporary is just the music of today. You know, the young people of the day, they're rapping, and they have a contemporary sound, so that's the sound of today.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things, though, regardless of whatever genre you're singing - one of the things that I think people associate with your group is the energy, that energy that comes through regardless, and let's - I'm going to play a little bit from the latest album. It's called "You Got to Move."

(Soundbite of song, "You Got to Move")

MARTIN: Where does that energy come from, Mr. Carter?

Mr. CARTER: Well, it comes from God. God gives us that energy because we're singing about him, and we're singing for him. He keeps us motivated.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. McKinnie? Is it ever hard to kind of keep that energy up, given your demanding schedule? I mean, even today you all are touring and touring and touring all over the place. Is it ever hard to maintain that energy?

Mr. McKINNIE: Well, it gets hard for me every night. I play drums for The Blind Boys of Alabama as well as sing background. So anytime I've got to be following Jimmy and he's on a fast song, he makes it hard for me every night. So - every night it gets a little harder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKINNIE: But as long as the people are still jumping and enjoying the songs, we're going to lay it on them.

Mr. CARTER: That's right. When I get through - he's washed down in sweat, washed out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh my goodness, washed down and wiped out. I wanted to talk a little bit more about - Mr. Carter, you were saying, you know, a lot of jazz performers got their start in gospel. Did you ever - were you ever tempted?

Mr. CARTER: No. We were offered to go into another field, but we turned it down. We didn't want to do that.

MARTIN: How come?

Mr. CARTER: We were dedicated gospel singers, you know.

MARTIN: You feel it's more of a calling than just a job?

Mr. CARTER: It is a calling for The Blind Boys, it is a calling. It's more than a job. It's a calling. We were designated to sing gospel songs.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with members of The Blind Boys of Alabama about their music and their new album, "Down in New Orleans."

You have a song on this new album that speaks to a calling, I think, and especially lending a helping hand. It's titled "Make a Better World," and it features the Hot 8 Brass Band. Let's play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Make a Better World")

MARTIN: Well, that's lovely.

Mr. CARTER: The world is not what we would like for it to be. That's why the song says make a better world. Let's strive to fix the world as best we can.

MARTIN: I'm curious, though, about why you decided to do "Down in New Orleans." Was it that you wanted to call attention to the situation down there after Katrina, or is it just you just love the music, or...

Mr. CARTER: Well, it was both. It was both. We told the people - we were trying to bring hope, you know, and so we told the people that we cannot build a house, we cannot help you build New Orleans back. We don't know how to use hammer and nail, but we can bring hope to you with our music, and that's what we tried to do.

MARTIN: You have some other great collaborations on this album, like you have Allen Toussaint, and let's play a little bit of that. Here it is with - here you are with Allen Toussaint in "If I could Help Somebody." Let's play a little bit.

(Soundbite of song, "If I Could Help Somebody")

Mr. CARTER: (Singing) If I could help somebody as I travel along, if I can help somebody in the world of song, if I can help somebody from doing wrong, then my living will not be in vain. Oh, my living will not be in vain. Oh, my living will not be in vain. I can help - if I can help somebody just by singing this old song, then my living will not be in vain.

MARTIN: So all right, Mr. Carter, tell the truth. Now, you've worked with your mates, The Blind Boys, for so long, was it hard to bring in these new collaborators? Was it a little hard to get used to some new stuff?

Mr. CARTER: Well, it was - you know, it was a challenge, really. You know, people like the New Orleans people. People like Ben Harper and Aaron Neville and all those people. It was a challenge, you know, and they brought the material to us, and we - you know, we got on it and gave it the gospel touch of The Blind Boys...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: We got it going on.

MARTIN: You got it going on? Did you have to school them a little bit, some of these young-uns, just to let them know what was up?

Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, we had to do a little adjustment, each - we had to adjust. So did they. But they loved to work with us, and we loved to work with them, and most of them, you know, came from the church anyway, so it wasn't - it really wasn't that hard.

MARTIN: You know, sometimes, though, there's a little bit of tension between folks who started in the church and then went off to do secular music and the folks who stayed in the church. Do you ever feel that way?

Mr. CARTER: I never felt that way because all God - all the people that we deal with, you know, even though they might have gone away from the church, they still have a little God in them. So that makes it work.

MARTIN: Mr. McKinnie - Mr. Carter, what possibly have you got left to do? You've done it all.

Mr. CARTER: Well, done it all, but you know, we're just waiting to see what is on the next horizon. Whatever it is, we're going to meet it head-on.

MARTIN: I understand you do have a world tour coming up though.

Mr. CARTER: Well, we're going overseas - in fact, we're going to a country I've never been to before. We're going to Hungary. I've never been there before, but I'm looking forward to that.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. McKinnie? What are you looking forward to?

Mr. McKINNIE: I'm looking forward to the fifth Grammy, that's what I'm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKINNIE: And Lord's willing, nothing happen - we're going to give it to him this time.

Mr. CARTER: I think so.

Mr. McKINNIE: Because you know, we've been (unintelligible) record for about two years. So you all get ready, because The Blind Boys are on their way back.

MARTIN: That's right. Jimmy Carter and Ricky McKinnie are members of the Grammy-award-winning, four-time Grammy-award-winning group - waiting on their fifth - The Blind Boys of Alabama. Their new album is "Down in New Orleans." Thank you so much for coming in to talk with us.

Mr. CARTER: Thank you for having us, and God bless you.

Mr. McKINNIE: Thank you again.

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