National News

Clarence Fountain, 88, Dies; Led the Blind Boys of Alabama

Posted June 6, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

Clarence Fountain, who sang gospel music fit to call down the heavens as the leader of the award-winning Blind Boys of Alabama for more than 60 years, died Sunday at a hospital near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 88.

The Blind Boys’ manager, Charles Driebe, said the cause was complications of diabetes.

The Blind Boys of Alabama sang a raucous, exuberant style of gospel that mixed harmony vocals with impassioned call-and-response shouting intended to rouse an audience into a religious fervor.

Explaining the group’s sound to The New York Times in 1987, Ray Allen, a folklorist and music historian, said it had evolved from the more staid style known as jubilee gospel into one that is distinguished by “a prominent lead singer shouting and preaching and backed by a rhythm-and-blues band.”

“Vocally, it made use of stronger rhythms and vocal techniques, such as moaning, melisma, falsetto and trance-induced kinds of behavior that had obvious antecedents in Caribbean or West African worship,” Allen continued. “The jubilee groups, by contrast, stood up straight and didn’t move around much.” The Blind Boys, he said, “were at the forefront of the transition.”

Fountain, who had a deep, versatile voice that became weathered over the decades, often sang lead. When he did, he could sound as explosive as James Brown. (Driebe said it might be more accurate to say that Brown sounded like Fountain.)

The Blind Boys had their roots in the mid-1940s at a segregated school for the blind in Talladega, Alabama, where Fountain and five friends formed a group they originally called the Happy Land Jubilee Singers.

Renamed the Blind Boys, the group was well established on the gospel circuit by the time many other performers, including Otis Redding, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Brown, became famous for moving from gospel to secular music.

Fountain said that over the years some producers had tried to persuade him and the group to make pop records, but he refused.

“I didn’t turn my back on the Lord,” he said on the NPR program “Morning Edition” in 2001. “I said I wanted to sing gospel music and I wanted to sing it for the Lord.”

Still, the Blind Boys’ foot-stomping sound appealed to secular audiences — and to secular artists. They worked with Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Tom Waits, Aaron Neville and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Blind Boys became more open to covering songs by artists like Reed, the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Dylan, Prince and Curtis Mayfield, as long as the lyrics did not betray their spirituality.

The results could be striking. In one instance the group sang the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” over the Animals’ arrangement of the traditional song “The House of the Rising Sun.”

“I’ve taken the theory that music is music, and all you have to do is just sing it and keep your lyrics clean and you’re on your way,” Fountain said on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” in 2002. “So we try to put the gospel feel to it, and it makes it much better than it was when it was rock ‘n’ roll, you know?”

In 1994 the Blind Boys received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Their “Spirit of the Century” won the 2001 Grammy for best traditional gospel album, and they went on to win four more Grammys before receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2009.

They collectively sang the part of Oedipus in “The Gospel at Colonus,” a musical retelling of “Oedipus Rex,” which starred Morgan Freeman and was presented on Broadway in 1988. They performed all over the world and visited the White House repeatedly, singing for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Fountain did not perform for Obama; he retired from touring with the group in 2007. But he still sang on occasion, Driebe said, most recently at a performance with Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys in Baton Rouge in May.

Fountain was born on Nov. 28, 1929, in Tyler, Alabama, to Will and Ida Fountain and grew up in Selma. His father was a sharecropper. Clarence lost his vision when he was 2 after a caregiver tried to cure an eye infection with a lye-based solution. He was sent to the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in Talladega (now part of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind) when he was 8.

He joined a boys choir there before forming the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. By the late 1940s the group was touring full time, and in 1948 they changed their name to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. They have used variations on that name ever since, including Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The Blind Boys lineup has changed over the years. The last surviving original member is Jimmy Carter, who is still touring with the group.

Fountain married Barbara Robertson in 1999. She survives him. His survivors also include several children.

Fountain said in a 1993 interview that he did not mind performing in secular venues because “God is everywhere, and we think he’s in the nightclub too, if you bring him in there.” By the same logic, he said, he saw nothing wrong with bringing the energy of a rock concert to a revival tent.

“If James Brown could come in here and do the twist, and do the mess around for the Devil, then I feel like it’s all right if I stand up here and mash potatoes for God,” he said at one live performance, moments before launching into “Look Where You Brought Me From.”