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Happy Land Jubilee

If you’re wondering how a black man, born into a poor Southern sharecropping family and blind since the age of 3, could stay on top of the music business for 60 years, talk to Clarence Fountain. Front man for the Blind Boys of Alabama, an incendiary gospel group that‘s been electrifying audiences since 1939, Fountain is tough. And on the rare occasion that his nerve fails him, his indomitable faith gets him through.

”Some people don’t believe in anything, but the hand of God is present in everything on Earth,“ says Fountain, speaking by phone from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. ”Everything will be the way he wants it. God has it all in control.“

Granted, our conversation has just started, but I can‘t resist cutting to the chase and asking where the hand of God can be seen in something like the events of September 11. ”I’ll tell you exactly where it was,“ Fountain calmly explains in the gravelly baritone that anchors the Blind Boys sound. ”We‘ve been blessed as far back as I can remember, and during World War II nothing happened to us. But the United States has to pay for some of the wrongs it’s done down through the years. God allows certain things to happen because man just don‘t want to live right.“

It’s hard to argue with that, so we‘ll return to the business at hand, which is the Blind Boys’ 20th album. Released on Real World Records, Spirit of the Century was recorded a couple of years ago in L.A. in just four days, and produced by John Chelew, who met the Blind Boys in 1994 when he recruited them to sing on the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat the Retreat. Ever since, he‘s wanted to make a record with them that would use elements of Delta blues to ”evoke the ghostly aura that original gospel music has,“ says Chelew. Toward that end he assembled a crack session band that includes modern blues masters Charlie Musselwhite and John Hammond, the redoubtable David Lindley, and the rhythm section from Richard Thompson’s band: Danny Thompson and Michael Jerome. (This is the band that will back the Blind Boys when they appear at UCLA on Saturday.)

Included on the album is a rousing take on the gospel standard ”Run On for a Long Time,“ which was performed by Moby on his 1999 album Play; a cover of the traditional tune ”Soldier“ that rides on a fat, gutbucket guitar line that‘s actually Lindley on oud; and a version of the JaggerRichards tune ”Just Wanna See His Face“ that features Hammond doing a stellar vamp on Keith Richards’ guitar style. The record closes with a stunning a cappella version of the Stones‘ ”The Last Time.“ Though Fountain dismisses blues as ”the devil’s music,“ the song is exactly that: a deeply Southern, stripped-down blues. Indeed, the push-pull between these two forms -- gospel, which is a music of celebration, and blues, a music of pain and lamentation -- constitutes the combustible heart of the Blind Boys sound.

Born in 1930 in Selma, Alabama, into a family of eight children, Fountain describes his parents as ”country folk who picked cotton and corn. My earliest memory is when I was 3 years old and I lost my sight. I got what they call ‘sore eyes,’ and after that they sent me to the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. I‘d never left home before, so that was scary, but I had to hang in there because there wasn’t anything I could do to change it.“

The Talladega Institute provided students with voice and music lessons, and taught them how to arrange Southern standards such as ”My Old Kentucky Home.“ Promising students were encouraged to attempt more, and in 1939 Fountain and five other students -- including Jimmy Carter and George Scott, who still sing with him today -- formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. Initially, the group emulated the sleek style of the then-ranking gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet, but they soon gravitated toward the hard gospel associated with Pentecostal churches. This came to be the dominant style of the golden age of gospel, which stretched from the mid-‘40s through the ’50s and saw the rise of the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds, among others.

The Blind Boys were out scuffling during those years, too. ”We left school and hit the road in 1944 and never looked back,“ Fountain recalls. ”We were just kids and didn‘t know nothing about touring, but after a while somebody showed us how to take care of our career in the right way. We were mostly touring in the South, so we had problems with racism, but nothing ever happened to us. We stuck together and always knew what we were supposed to do and not supposed to do, and how to go around to the back entrance.“

By 1948, the Happy Land Singers had changed their name to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and recorded their first record, ”I Can See Everybody’s Mother but Mine.“ Just prior to its release, founding member Vel Traylor was killed. As Fountain tells it, ”The Lord said, ‘If man is obedient and does what I say, he’ll live long on the Earth. If he won‘t, he shortens his days.’ Vel shortened his days because he didn‘t want to do the right thing. We were coming home from a show in Memphis, Tennessee, and he just had guns on his mind. It was an odd thing we never did understand, but he couldn’t resist looking for guns during that period of time. We were being put up in some lady‘s house, and a man come in with a gun, and that boy let Vel have the gun. It went off, and though it could’ve been any of us standing around there with our hands on the gun, it was Vel that went down.“

The group soldiered on, and they‘d released 12 albums by 1969, when Fountain departed the group for a solo career. ”I left because I got mad,“ recalls Fountain, who recorded two albums on his own. ”I’d run the group all my life and we‘d been successful, so things had to go the way I wanted them to go. Somebody in the group didn’t agree with that, so I said, ‘All right, you can have the whole group to run.’“

It wasn‘t until 1980 that the Blind Boys reunited, and three years later they began crossing over to mainstream white audiences in a big way when they were featured in The Gospel at Colonus, a musical adaptation of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. Initially they were leery of the project, and Fountain says he could only commit to it after he figured out how to ”take the Greek part out and put the church part in.

“Gospel is the only way I know to really sing with feeling,” he says. “Guys think they can get that feeling going singing about the woman they love, but that ain‘t the real deal. The real deal is singing for God. When you do that you sing with inspiration from on high, and that’s how we tear the house up every night.”

Speaking of women, Fountain‘s had a surprisingly checkered career in that department. Married for five years to his third wife, he says, “You got to get a woman who wants to do right. One doesn’t do, I put her down and get another one.”

Asked if he has children, he replies, “Somewhere. I got two kids from when I was in my bad days.”

Your bad days? Can you elaborate?

“That‘s a long story. I can’t go into that. I can‘t remember,” he declares, firmly closing the subject to further discussion.

Does his wife accompany him on tour?

“That wouldn’t be good. Women are very jealous, and she wouldn‘t like it when other women come up and say, ’Whoo, you so good, gimme a kiss!‘ Things happen like that, you know. When I’m home, me and her have a good time here in Baton Rouge, and I‘m thinking about retiring because I’m tired of running here and there. This tour could be my last go-round.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at UCLA‘s Royce Hall Saturday, January 12, 8 p.m.