Singer Clarence Fountain was already a member of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama when the group--perhaps the greatest gospel ensemble to emerge this century--turned professional in 1944. Within three years he would become the pilot of the crew. Nearly fifty years later, Fountain, 66, says the act has survived because it's never changed its emphasis. "See, everything came from gospel," he says. "The blues came from gospel and jazz came from the blues. It all goes hand in hand. According to the Good Book, the devil was one of the chief singers in the heavenly choir, so there must have been gospel singing back in those days, too. And when the Lord kicked him out, the devil just brought his influence down with him, and everything just went to the blues and jazz. Now they've got to turn to gospel, whether they want to or not."
Clearly, the exuberant Fountain (sightless since age three, when he contracted pinkeye) has strong opinions about what constitutes the devil's music and its celestial opposite. Moreover, he's spent his life pursuing those convictions. He began performing when he was a student at Alabama's Taladega Institute for the Blind and found kindred spirits in classmates Jimmy Carter, Johnny Fields, Olice Thomas and George Scott. At first the vocalists were known as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, but they became famous as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama (so named to avoid confusion with another outfit, the Blind Boys of Mississippi). The group abandoned the "Five" in its moniker as membership grew; today it consists of four blind singers (Fountain, Carter, Scott and Fields, the last of whom seldom tours with the band because of health problems) and four younger, sighted crooners (Eric McKinnie, Caleb Butler, Joey Williams and Lamont Blount).
The present grouping is enjoying a flood of success that rivals the popularity of the original lineup in the late Forties and Fifties. The roots of this comeback can be traced to 1983, when the Boys--still revered in the gospel community but relatively obscure outside it--appeared in the Obie-winning musical The Gospel at Colonus. The play (a classic Greek tragedy presented in Pentecostal style) helped re-establish the act as a favorite at jazz festivals worldwide and paved the way for its first major-label release, 1994's Grammy-nominated Deep River. A followup for the Private Music imprint, I Brought Him With Me, hits the streets August 29; it was recorded live at Los Angeles's House of Blues.
Fountain admits to enjoying the Boys' latter-day achievements. "It just takes a little time for a gospel act to really stick out," he claims. "If we'd been doing rock and roll or singing the blues, it would have been different. You'd have heard about us a long time ago. But that's not the way the Lord works. He said the race is not given to the swift nor the strong but to the ones who endureth to the end."
A key to the Boys' longevity, Fountain believes, is their insistence on updating their style. While the harmonies that sparked the quintet during the Fifties were supremely beautiful, he says that they can seem dated to some contemporary listeners. That's why the arrangements currently used by the group sound completely different. "You have to keep up with the times," Fountain stresses. "If you don't, you're automatically out anyway. Our thing has been that we changed our sound every four or five years to keep up with everything that's going on. That's what made it for us. Now we know how to sing to the masses of people today. You just go along with the times, and you understand that things get better and not worse. In the gospel field, it always gets better."
Indeed, the Boys' audience has grown astronomically. But it's also changed dramatically: Fountain estimates that 99 percent of the fans are white, and many of them don't subscribe to his religious convictions. These devotees, then, are motivated more out of an attraction to lovely voices than they are to matters of the spirit. But Fountain feels that it's important to show Caucasian nonbelievers how exciting it can be to use melodies to salute God. In his opinion, the staid church music many Americans grew up with "doesn't have any soul. It doesn't have any feeling. It's just a song." But, he continues, "we try to change that. We try to sing with a rhythm and sing with power and sing with feeling. We think like this: If God is in us and we're in Him, we think we can bring out that part of God in you. We can make you feel that part. Because all of us have a part of God in us, whether we like it or not. All you got to do is pull Him out. So we try to do that. Now, there's a lot of good white quartets in the gospel field. And as a whole, they sing good songs. But it just doesn't have that kick to it. That's our thing--to put the kick in it and put the feeling in it like it should be."
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Remarkably, the years haven't dimmed Fountain's skills. As you might expect, he regards his voice's pristine condition as a miracle. "That's the work of the Lord. Lots of singers spend time as good-time Charlie, and we never did. It's how you live that determines how you are going to do. I try to live as close to the Lord as I can so I can live as long as I can. And if you live so that the Lord can use you, everything will be all right. That's my theory."
So strong are the Boys' convictions that they have no fear about bringing their show into dens of iniquity. In fact, Fountain states, the music's power is often at its strongest in bars and clubs. "We've been in places where they were drinking and we've sung in places where they were wild. But when we start singing, everything calms down. If we get up and really start singing, everything turns to quietness. They listen. I don't ask them to be quiet or anything. I don't do that. I just go to singing and just sing it out, and the Lord works it right on out. Their hearts tell them: `Y'all hush.'
"The main thing I want people to know," he goes on, "is that we come with a song in our heart and with joy in our mind--and we think that if we feel it, the audience ought to be able to feel it, too. Our thing is to try to touch somebody. But the most important thing is, we don't sing the blues and we don't sing jazz. We sing natural-born gospel. We come singing the praises of the Lord."
The Blind Boys of Alabama, featuring Clarence Fountain. 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 25, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., $16/$8, 431-3939.