Blind Boys Of Alabama Member Clarence Fountain Dies At 88 Clarence Fountain was one of the last surviving founding members of The Blind Boys of Alabama. They first met as pre-teens at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the early 1940s. Fountain died Sunday of complications from diabetes at 88.
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Blind Boys Of Alabama Member Clarence Fountain Dies At 88

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Blind Boys Of Alabama Member Clarence Fountain Dies At 88

Blind Boys Of Alabama Member Clarence Fountain Dies At 88

Blind Boys Of Alabama Member Clarence Fountain Dies At 88

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Clarence Fountain was one of the last surviving founding members of The Blind Boys of Alabama. They first met as pre-teens at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the early 1940s. Fountain died Sunday of complications from diabetes at 88.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Clarence Fountain was only 8 years old, his family left him at an Alabama boarding school for the blind. He eventually went on to help create The Blind Boys of Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO CLOSE TO HEAVEN")

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) I'm too close to heaven.

SHAPIRO: Clarence Fountain died yesterday at a hospital in Baton Rouge, La. The cause was complications from diabetes. Fountain was 88 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this appreciation.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Clarence Fountain was a teenager when he and his band mates recorded their very first hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN SEE EVERYBODY'S MOTHER")

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) I can see every, everybody's mother. Lord, I can't see mine.

ULABY: Clarence Fountain was born sighted in 1929. When he was 2, a caretaker washed out an eye infection with lye, thinking it would help. At the boarding school, fountain and his friends sang in a big choir but decided to form their own group after listening to gospel quartets on the radio, as he told NPR in 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CLARENCE FOUNTAIN: And I said, well, if they can do it, we can sing almost as good as they can.

ULABY: Back then, the group was called the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. They quit school and hit the gospel circuit. But when tastes turned towards rock 'n' roll, so did Clarence Fountain's peers, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke. Fountain said studio producers urged The Blind Boys of Alabama to sing secular music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FOUNTAIN: One man told me, name your price. I said, I don't have a price. I'm going to sing gospel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) Oh.

FOUNTAIN: I didn't come here looking for Jesus. I brought him along with me.

ULABY: At JazzFest in New Orleans in the 1990s, Fountain was still taking old friends to task for defecting to rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) Oh.

FOUNTAIN: If James Brown can come in here and do the "Twist," and do the "Mess Around" for the Devil...

ULABY: Then, said Fountain, he could do the mashed potato for God. By then, The Blind Boys of Alabama had already branched out. In the 1980s, they were on a New York stage with Morgan Freeman performing in a musical adaptation of the play "Oedipus at Colonus."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS")

FOUNTAIN: Pity a man's poor carcass and his ghost, for Oedipus is not the strength that he was.

ULABY: Over the years, Clarence Fountain softened his views on secular music. The Blind Boys collaborated with the likes of Lou Reed, k.d. lang and Kanye West. In 2002, Fountain explained his change of heart to NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FOUNTAIN: Music is music. And all you have to do is just sing it and keep your lyrics clean, and you're on your way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SHALL NOT WALK ALONE")

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) And when I'm tired and weary and a long way from home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FOUNTAIN: We look for songs that mean something, higher ground, you know? Everybody knows where the higher ground is. It sure ain't here on earth. It's above us. So we all want to go to the higher ground.

ULABY: Fountain said the secret to his group's seven-decade-long collaboration was the feeling they were part of something much more meaningful than themselves and they helped their audience feel a connection to something divine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FOUNTAIN: See, that's the thing. You have to have just a little bit of faith, just enough about the size of a mustard seed, and you can speak to the mountain and tell it to get out of the way and it'll move. But you must have faith.

ULABY: Clarence Fountain used to say his faith and his disability formed the foundation of a long and wonderful career and a truly extraordinary life. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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