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Seeking an experienced live band? The Blind Boys of Alabama boast 60+ years of show-stopping soul.

Wednesday, Sep 24 2003
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Clarence Fountain and his gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama must have a good chuckle when they hear people cite a band like the Rolling Stones as an example of "longevity" or "durability." After all, Mick Jagger may be old, but he's not this old, probably not even this soulful. Observe: As the Stones played their first gig in 1962, the Blind Boys marked the first quarter-century in their prolific career as black gospel's premiere small ensemble. Like the Stones, the Blind Boys were in school when they formed in 1939, but their alma mater wasn't anything like Jagger's London School of Economics. The Boys started out as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers at the Alabama Institute for the Blind and Deaf, a place they've described as prisonlike.

The Stones listened to hard-working American blues artists and made money covering their tunes. The Blind Boys persevered as former gospel singers Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin made fortunes in secular music, and listened as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Marvin Gaye imitated their hard-driving gospel sounds. Eventually the Boys would upend American black music's gospel-to-secular route by folding spiritual tunes by secular artists - like the Stones' "Just Wanna See His Face" - into their hearty repertoire.

Unlike the Stones, the Blind Boys have survived both multiple tours of the black church circuit in the early-20th-century Jim Crow South and numerous record company rip-offs. Also unlike the Stones, the Boys have starred in a hit Broadway show, The Gospel at Colonus; shared a benefit bill in San Francisco with Green Day; and earned Grammys two years in a row. Those awards were for two albums on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, 2001's Spirit of the Century and last year's Higher Ground, on which the Boys applied their goose bump-inducing falsettos and heavy-duty harmonies to both traditional gospel tunes and takes on Tom Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here," Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home," and Prince's "The Cross." As for durability, the Stones' European summer tour ends this month. The Boys, however, played throughout the summer, and are booked solidly across the United States through April.

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Ron Nachmann

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