By Alex Greene for Memphis Flyer
The Blind Boys of Alabama, who still feature an original member from their earliest days in the 1930s, are a national treasure. Now known for crossing musical boundaries with their interpretations of everything from traditional gospel favorites to contemporary spiritual material by songwriters such as Prince and Tom Waits, they have appeared on recordings with artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, Susan Tedeschi, Ben Harper, Patty Griffin, and Taj Mahal. But it’s as a group in their own right that they really shine.
Memphians will have a chance to hear them shine on Monday, October 25, at the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center. Attending that, or listening to their albums, is worth more than any list of the honors, Grammy awards, and White House appearances in their track record, and one reason is their astute use of producers who’ve kept their band arrangements simple and organic.
I had the honor of speaking with singer Jimmy Carter, who was a youngster at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Alabama, when the group got started, and eventually became an official member of the group. We spoke about the remarkable consistency of their sound over decades of records.
Memphis Flyer: Gospel has gone in so many directions since the ’70s and ’80s, but you’ve always found good producers who stay true to your roots.
Jimmy Carter: That’s right. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have them. We collaborate with many, many secular artists, but they have to know that we are a gospel group, we sing nothing but gospel songs. If they can’t meet that qualification, we just turn the other way. But like you say, we’ve had some good producers, and they’ve really done a magnificent job for the Blind Boys.
Booker T. Jones produced one of your albums.
Oh yeah, that was in 1992. I remember the album. Yeah, Booker T., he’s a very good friend of ours. I think we were in California. I remember we did an a cappella song, “Deep River.” I remember that well. I think we were nominated for a Grammy that year. That a cappella stuff will really blow you away!
The last album you released was Almost Home, which also had some great producers.
Yeah, I think we ended up with around four! They all got it. Yeah, they sure did.
Some of those tracks were done at Fame Recording Studio.
Oh yeah, in Muscle Shoals, that’s right. We’ve worked there before. It’s a great studio. It’s known nationwide.
You sang “Let My Mother Live” on that album. It seems very autobiographical. Did you write that?
No, Marc Cohn and John Leventhal wrote that song. I co-wrote it. I had a little something to do with it, but they wrote the song. It’s based on my life and it’s pretty accurate. I used to pray to God that he would let my mother live till I got grown. And he not only let her live, he let her live until she was 103 years old!
She must have been living right.
Evidently she was!
She must have been extremely proud to see how far you took your gift of music.
Yes, she was very proud. She didn’t visit much, but when we came to Birmingham she would always come out.
Did she have any idea that you would become so devoted to music when you started at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind?
No, no. None whatsoever. As a matter of fact, none of us did when we started out. We weren’t looking for no accolades or nothing like that. We just wanted to get out and sing gospel music. And when we started out, we had nothing but an old hollow box guitar. That’s all we had. As time went on, we got drums, bass, guitar, and all that stuff.
I know you didn’t officially join the Blind Boys of Alabama until the ’80s. But you were at the same school from very early on?
Yes, I met them at the school. I was singing with them at that time, too, while they were in school. But when they left school in 1944, my mother told me that she wasn’t going to let me go. I was too young. So she sent me back to school.
That must have been hard for you to accept.
It was! I wanted to go with them, but she wouldn’t let me go. [laughs]
But you did go on to sing with other groups.
Oh yeah. I left school. I didn’t leave Alabama, but I left Birmingham. I was born and raised in Birmingham. That’s where I am now! But when I left school, I went to Mobile, Alabama, and I got hooked up with some guys I knew down there. And from there I went to another little city in Georgia, Columbus. That’s where the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi found me. I was privileged to sing with them for about 15 years.
Both groups were known as The Five Blind Boys. Did the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama have a similar approach?
Yes, we were very similar.
It must be bittersweet now that Clarence Fountain and others from the original group have passed away.
Yeah. I’m the only one singing now, the only one that’s left. So it is kind of bittersweet. But I’m glad that I’m able to carry on the name. God is still good to me. And I was very fortunate, because everyone who’s in the group now is a good singer, and a good listener.
Good musicianship and good listening go hand in hand.
Yes! So when I step down and pass the torch, I think I can pass it on in good faith.
Do you have a personal favorite of all the songs you sing?
I have a couple, but our signature song is “Amazing Grace.” We do that every night. We’ll be doing that in Memphis, too. We’ve been there many, many times. I love the good soul food there. So I’m looking forward to going somewhere and getting me a good meal when I get there.