In seven decades of singing and innovating gospel music, the Blind Boys of Alabama have received their full share of rewards.
The National Endowment for the Arts has honored the Blind Boys with a National Heritage Fellowship. Five Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences attest to the popularity and influence of the quartet, which students at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind began in 1939.
Their first recording, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine," was released in 1948. Their most recent CD, “Almost Home,” was released last year and acknowledges that only Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter remain of the original members. Lead vocalist and drummer Ricky McKinnie says when those pioneers are “over Jordan,” too, the Blind Boys of Alabama will endure.
“As long as there are blind people who can sing gospel music,” McKinnie says, “there will always be a Blind Boys of Alabama.”
And the Blind Boys will continue to sing praise in a range of musical settings, including their collaboration June 9 with the North Carolina Symphony’s Summerfest at Booth Amphitheatre in Cary.
While the Blind Boys have worked with orchestras in the past, this will be their first performance with the N.C. Symphony.
Throughout their storied career, the Blind Boys and their music have evolved in step with changes in American society. Originating during the Jim Crow era of segregation, the members experienced the indignities of restricted lodging and meal sources that imposed inconveniences and indignities upon African-American entertainers. As barriers dissolved during the civil rights movement, opportunities and audiences began to expand.
“(The original Blind Boys) came through the Jim Crow era where there were hotels they couldn’t stay in, and venues they couldn’t work,” McKinnie says. “They’ve seen all that come to pass and change.
“Now, we can stay where we like to, eat where we like to, and go pretty much anywhere our music takes us.”
Their music has taken the Blind Boys to the White House, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Their collaborations live on record feature a diverse roster of artists, including Taj Mahal, bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan.
“Every time we sing with a different artist, they bring their own style,” McKinnie says. “But we try to blend the Blind Boys’ style to whatever artist we’re working with.”
Saturday's concert will be conducted by Wesley Schulz, who believes the legendary quartet fits perfectly the goals of Summerfest.
“One of the great things about orchestras in general is that we’re really flexible in the styles of music we play,” he says. “When we are looking to program our Summerfest concerts, one of our goals is to program a variety of music. Including a group like the Blind Boys is in line with trying to present diverse offerings."
The bulk of the program will have the group singing with the orchestra; the Blind Boys have decided on their set list.
"And over the years, they’ve commissioned charts to be written for the orchestra," Schulz said.
A take on gospel
The Blind Boys' style is an updated version of Jubilee, a style of gospel music that emerged in the 1930s based on the innovations of gospel legend, Thomas Dorsey.
The quartet, originally named Happyland Jubilee Singers, performed for soldiers in World War II training camps. The singers left school and turned professional in 1945. Soon, they changed their name to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
It was during this time that Jubilee, characterized by smooth harmonies and often shared vocal leads, gave rise to the “hard quartets” led by powerful lead singers. For the Blind Boys, that singer was the legendary Clarence Fountain, who died this week at age 88.
For about 50 years, the Blind Boys also included a Triangle resident among their members. Baritone-voiced co-founder George Scott lived in Carrboro and Durham from the 1950s up until his death in 2005.
"He didn't talk a lot, but he was a spiritually heavy, heavy guy," longtime Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe told The News & Observer when Scott died in March 2005.
Through the years, the Blind Boys built upon their roots to include modern sounds and styles. As the civil rights movement advances produced new opportunities, their popularity increased and their audience expanded.
“Clarence Fountain could sing the songs with a blues feel, and guitarist George Scott enjoyed singing ballads," McKinnie says "Jimmy Carter came with the 'hard' traditional gospel sound. So they had something for everybody.
“People had been hearing about the Blind Boys long before they began singing to mainstream audiences. When they had the opportunity to sing for mainstream audiences, they were pretty much welcomed. (The audiences) looked past the ethnic part and heard the music. The music is what broke down all the barriers.”
McKinnie said the Blind Boys avoid mixing gospel music with politics. Still, he believes their message is especially poignant in today’s climate of uncertainty and doubt.
“We try to sing good songs to make people feel good. Our music lets people know that there is hope, lets people know there is good news, and that they don’t have to worry. It will be alright.”
Coping with changes
It hasn’t always been easy for five blind singers to make their way in a changing world. But with the Lord and his music as their guide, the Blind Boys of Alabama have traveled and sung their way into the annals of gospel music lore.
The Blind Boys “learned that a disability does not have to be a handicap," McKinnie says with pride.
"That is one of the main things about the Blind Boys," he said. "They realized that a disability is just a limitation, and everybody has limitations.”
For Schulz, there are no limitations when it comes to blending the music of the Blind Boys with the musical expressions of the N.C. Symphony Orchestra.
“There are a couple pieces the orchestra will play on their own,” says Schulz. “For that, we’re pulling more from the traditional repertory but in the vein of Americana. So we’ll do a couple pieces of Aaron Copeland. We’ll do his ‘Fanfare for the Common Man,’ and he wrote a piece, ‘John Henry.’ So we thought that would be a nice tie-in with the group.
“This will be a nice genre-bending experience for us.”
Who: NC Symphony Summerfest with Blind Boys of Alabama
When: 7:30 p.m. June 9
Where: Koka Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway, Cary
Tickets: $36 in advance, $38 day-of show for lawn seats; $38 in advance, $40 day-of show for covered table seats.
Info: 919-733-2750 or ncsymphony.org