Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Parsing an eight-decade legacy of praise and song

When the Blind Boys of Alabama take the stage, audiences get more than beautiful gospel singing, they get a glimpse of living history.

Emphasis on living, because this group is the longest-running party in jubilee gospel singing — the Black vocal quartets and quintets that enjoyed a commercial heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. The Blind Boys are a cultural institution that predates Pearl Harbor, and even after taking their act into the secular world in 1944, they never strayed from their four- and five-part harmony sound.

Nattily dressed in matching suits, they’re vibrant performers, true partners with the audience despite their advancing years. Original member Jimmy Lee Carter, the group’s 91-year-old patriarch, retired only last year, taking with him his signature pump-up line: “I can’t see you; I need to hear you!”

And while their repertoire has ranged beyond the church, they never compromised their religious values in a career that includes collaborators such as Prince, Tom Petty, Toots Hibbert, Taj Mahal, Tom Waits and Lou Reed. (The latter, whom they admired, prompted founding member Clarence Fountain to ask, “Who told that man he can sing?”)

This is one of many illuminative moments in “Spirit of the Century: Our Own Story,” a new book about the ensemble’s unimaginable career. In its introduction, co-author Preston Lauterbach writes, “However you want to measure their journey — through time, distance, technological developments, or cultural trends — no American band has ever come so far.”

Over its eight-decade career, at times a quintet and others a quartet, the group has had nearly 20 members, and after Carter’s retirement, 2024 is the first calendar year to begin with no original members. But somehow the legend keeps evolving. In addition to the new book, which doubles as a history of jubilee gospel singing, the group just won its sixth Grammy in February for its most recent release, “Echoes of the South.” Rather than slowing down, the group is busy writing its next chapter.

“I loved what the Blind Boys stood for, that’s why I’m here,” says longtime member Ricky McKinnie, 71. “They let the world know that it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s what you can do.”

Born sighted, McKinnie was a musical prodigy. At 18, he was touring with the well-known Gospel Keynotes. By the time he was 23, they had a gold record. This was 1975.

Young as he was, it had been a long journey. He first met the Blind Boys at 4 years old when his mother, Sarah McKinnie, was a singer who toured the “gospel highway,” a circuit for religious groups. Car travel was less expensive, so small jubilee groups proliferated, their members limited by the available space. Audiences loved them — still do. Many of the pre-rock-and-roll gospel groups had weightless names — the Swan Silvertones, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Sensational Nightingales, the Angelic Gospel Singers — that mirrored the buoyancy of their sound. These were men in suits and women in dresses who were ennobled by the spirit of the lord and raised in the kind of musical communities that fostered many of the greatest singers in U.S. history. Sam Cooke, for example, who sang with gospel highway legends the Soul Stirrers.

McKinnie was first diagnosed with cataracts as a schoolboy. But it was in that moment of glory, with a gold record in hand, that he fully lost his sight. Thanks to the example of those earlier heroes, he didn’t slow down his music-making or waver in his commitment to singing the gospel. He was invited to join the group in 1989, when the genre was no longer a commercial gold mine, but the honor was breathtaking nonetheless. He has now spent half his life in the group. When their manager died in 1997, he did the job for three years. Today he is their de facto leader and spokesman — a bridge to the golden age.

“Clarence made things happen,” McKinnie remembers of his hero. “There was nothing he thought was too hard for [the group] to do. He managed them, he wrote songs, he was in a solo career. He was one of the first people I knew who had a chauffeur. Everyone else would be in cars with two or three people, but he had his own ride.”

“Spirit of the Century” offers a rousing view of the old gospel highway. The book, credited to the Blind Boys themselves, with an assist from Lauterbach, includes both new and archival interviews with members and associates. The touring life had its sinful temptations to be sure, including the adoring women who constantly surrounded Cooke. One of the rowdier, harder-partying groups was the Blind Boys’ friendly rivals, the Blind Boys of Mississippi. The groups had an obvious kinship, and even shared members, though in terms of their adherence to Christian living, the Alabama group was the temperate one. One of the Mississippi singers’ sons says in the book: “My dad going down the road, if saw a liquor store, he had to stop. Why? Because the men needed what they called their oil.”

For their part, the Blind Boys of Alabama were so well-traveled that late member Olice Thomas could give directions to their drivers.

Like McKinnie, Joey Williams, 60, was a gospel wunderkind, a guitarist and harmonist for another of those pillowy-sounding groups, the Mighty Clouds of Joy. They shared a bill with the Blind Boys one night; their classic records were the sound of his childhood, even though Williams was born years after they were released. At that gig, he says, he watched the Blind Boys “kill the crowd.”

When the two groups played a subsequent double bill, the Blind Boys’ manager asked Williams whether he could find a guitarist for their backing band. Today he laughs: “I came back and said, ‘I found the guy: me.’”

That was in the early 1990s, when the Blind Boys had already been going for about a half-century. And yet somehow, they were entering another commercial upswing, their biggest yet. Peter Gabriel of all people played a significant role in their resurgence, signing the group to his Real World Records imprint, featuring them on his 2003 album “Up,” and taking them on the subsequent tour as openers and guest singers.

“It was a delight to work with the Blind Boys,” Gabriel said by email. “Their voices sound as ‘lived-in’ as any voices I have heard, and when they were firing on all cylinders it was sure to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.”

Following that exposure, the Blind Boys were thrust into the mainstream. As the 1990s wore on, they were embraced by the growing Americana audience; their 1998 album, “Spirit of the Century,” won a Grammy, as did its follow-up. They collaborated with a who’s who of popular musicians and even entered pop culture history, singing Tom Waits’s “Down in the Hole” for the opening credits of “The Wire’s” second season. In a 2015 interview with AARP magazine, Bob Dylan named three gospel groups that he considered formative: the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Staple Singers and the Blind Boys.

Carter’s retirement, like Fountain’s death, ended an era for the group, but they press on. They continue to perform at festivals, including this weekend at the Tinner Hill Music Festival in Falls Church, Va. Their concerts are still elegant, animated celebrations for believers and nonbelievers alike. If anything, “Spirit of the Century” provided a rare chance to pause and take stock for a group that has been moving forward for almost 90 years.

“You don’t realize what you’ve done, how far you’ve come,” Williams says, “until you start talking about it. It reminds you where you come from.”

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