By Tracy Riggs for The Alabama Baptist
Being part of a worldwide athletic event might be a pinnacle for many acts, but for the internationally acclaimed gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama, performing at the closing ceremonies of the World Games in Birmingham was one of many highlights in a long and successful musical career.
Throughout their many years of singing, they have performed all over the world, been to the White House three times and earned five Grammy Awards. More recently, they were one of the groups performing at the World Games closing ceremonies July 17 in Birmingham.
Jimmy Carter, lead singer, group leader and the only original member left, remarked about performing there, “It’s kind of special, all right. I didn’t know we were going to be in it until it had already been decided. But I’m proud to be part of it. I can speak for the Blind Boys when I say they are proud too.”
How it started
The original Blind Boys met while singing in choirs at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega. The group officially started in 1939 and took their act on the road in June 1944. Banding together to form the group rose out of a competitive spirit.
“At the time we were together, we had another quartet already on the roll called the Golden Gate Quartet. They were nationally known, and we thought that what they were doing, we could too,” Carter recalled.
The boys formed their own quartet, then called the Happyland Jubilee Singers. The name was changed due to an outside influence.
“There was another blind group out of Mississippi at the same time the blind group in Alabama came out. They were named the Jackson Harmonierres, from a little town in Mississippi called Pineywoods about 19–20 miles from Jackson,” Carter remembered.
“There was this promoter out of Newark, New Jersey, who had a gimmick that said, ‘We are going to have a battle of music between the blind boys of Alabama and the blind boys of Mississippi,’” Carter continued.
“The name drew so much that we both decided to keep the names. That’s how the Blind Boys of Mississippi came about, and that’s how the Blind Boys of Alabama came about — from this promoter and this battle of music.”
The early years were difficult, Carter said. Segregation was strong in the South and there were many places they couldn’t perform.
“When we got a chance to sing to the white people, they wanted it all the time,” he said, “but we weren’t allowed to give it to them.
“Our audience now is mostly white just because we were finally allowed the chance to show the white people what we had. They accepted it, and they have been accepting it all this time.
“But all that’s washed away now, so we don’t have to think about that.”
Doing God’s work
Carter identifies himself as Baptist, but traveling and singing on weekends throughout his adult life has meant he seldom is able to attend church on Sundays. However, he knows he’s doing God’s work.
“If the people that we try to touch don’t come to church, then we gotta bring the church to them,” Carter declared. “That’s what we do.”
“Amazing Grace” is both Carter’s favorite and the Blind Boys’ signature song. They all know that, without that amazing grace,
they wouldn’t be performing.
Carter said fellowship with the other Blind Boys is another thing that keeps him going.
“They are dedicated, just like I am, and so we get around and we fellowship together and we talk,” Carter said. “We renew our pledge that we’ll never turn around. That’s what we’ve been doing all these years.”
The group wants to touch lives every time they perform, whether for presidents, halfway across the world or for a local crowd.
“Our primary aim when we sing to people,” Carter noted, “is to touch their lives. We’ve had people come up and tell us how we have touched them.”
Carter also has been moved by the awards and opportunities the Blind Boys have had.
“When we first got our first Grammy in 2001, that was a historical moment to me,” he said. “And the next [was that] we’ve been to the White House three times. We’ve sung for three presidents — President Bush, President Clinton and President Obama — we sang for all of them. All of them were very, very nice to us.
“Those experiences were the highlights of my career,” Carter said.
Message of hope
But singing about hope — that’s the group’s mission.
“We’re glad to get accolades or something like that, but we want to touch a life. We want to cause somebody to turn around and go back. We like to talk about the hope. When people have life, there’s hope too.
“We try to give them encouragement, life, hope, all of that. That’s what we’re all about.”
Looking back over the years of performing Carter said, “We made it because we are a firm believer in God, and we promised Him that if He would help us out, we would serve Him until we died. I’m the only one that’s left originally, but I’m going to stay here as long as I can.”