As the Blind Boys of Alabama, they became stars in an important corner of black America, but they were largely unknown to the mainstream.
That is now changing. Since 60 Minutes II first reported on this story last fall, they've had a second hit CD, won their second Grammy and have performed to sell-out crowds all over the U.S. and Europe.
Correspondent Dan Rather reports on the Blind Boys of Alabama, who sing gospel like you've never heard before.
Setting "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "The House of the Rising Sun" is something most gospel groups would never even consider.
But Clarence Fountain, leader of the group, says the Blind Boys were inspired by the same force that has guided them for 60 years: “It was only the goodness of the Lord that brought us from young kids into manhood. And now we’re old men and still going on."
When the group is onstage, it’s easy to forget that four of the seven musicians are blind. But you’re instantly reminded of that when you see how the Blind Boys have to lean on each other just to get around. They ride the bus together, stay in the same hotels together, and eat their meals together.
Fountain, George Scott and Jimmy Carter are the three original members of the Blind Boys.
Their story began more than 60 years ago in Birmingham, or, to be more precise, just up the road at what was then known as the "Talladega Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind.” Six boys, all about 7 years old and all blind, arrived there in 1937 with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“We were all brought up in real good Christian homes. We were taught the Bible, we were taught even to endure hardship,” says Jimmy Carter, one of the group’s original members.
Carter remembers arriving at the school. “I’ll never forget. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was 7 years old. And when my mom walked off and left me, I thought the world had come to an end,” he says, laughing now.
Conditions were harsh, and discipline was painful at the Talladega School. Students were taught how to read Braille, and to make brooms, chairs and shelves.
“Being blind is something that you grow accustomed to,” says Fountain. “And you don’t even think about being blind, just think: ‘Well, I can see as well as you,’ you know? Because there’s somebody up there watching over me.”
But the Talladega school did have a large choir, and that’s where the youngsters realized that music could give them a chance for a better life. At the age of 14 – with the help of two "sighted" young singers – the Blind Boys left the school and hit the road.
They traveled by car, in a 1939 Buick. “Since we were small, everybody was small, you could put five people in the back and three in the front,” recalls Fountain.
At first, they called themselves the “Happy Land Jubilee Singers.” But one day, they found themselves on the same bill as another group of young, blind gospel singers from Mississippi.
The concert promoter decided to turn coincidence into competition. “This is how he had it: ‘Come see the Blind Boys from Alabama, and the Blind Boys from Mississippi. They’re going to battle it out. We’re going to have a battle of music to see who wins.’ So, that’s how it came about,” remembers Fountain.
Who won? “The Blind Boys of Mississippi. But that was all right,” says Fountain, laughing.
The Blind Boys of Alabama soon became gospel stars. And gospel music fans had faith, but they didn't have much money. So the Blind Boys made many records, but it was the promoters and producers who made most of the money from their hits - including their 1955 recording of "Stand By Me."
In fact, that song became such a classic that the Blind Boys recorded it again on their latest CD, "Higher Ground."
At last, the group is getting the money its music earns. But the members have to spend as much time promoting as they do performing. They keep in touch with their original, mostly black, audience by visiting gospel radio stations. And they also look for new fans by stopping at record stores in white, middle-class neighborhoods.
"People that are interested in honest music, music that has a tradition and comes from a tradition," says the group's manager, Charles Driebe. "And these guys aren’t in a tradition. They are a tradition.”
Many traditional gospel singers, like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, crossed over in the early ‘50s to a new kind of music, rock 'n' roll. Promoters asked the Blind Boys to make that switch, too, but they resisted.
“We made a vow that we would not deviate from our calling,” says Carter. “We were going to stick to gospel no matter what. The money might have looked all right, but we wasn’t thinking about that.”
“We are looking for that eternity, that life eternal,” says George Scott. “That’s the main thing that we were looking at. And rock 'n' roll couldn’t give us that. Now, after all that money’s gone, where is your soul?”
Sticking to the gospel path kept the Blind Boys off the highway to fame and fortune. But they kept on performing, even as their audiences were shrinking.
While they labored in obscurity, the Blind Boys began to experiment. They started singing old-fashioned gospel in new-fangled ways.
For example, they set “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Carter didn’t agree with the idea at first: “‘Amazing Grace’ is an old standard, so we thought changing it to the tunes of 'The House of the Rising Sun’ was kind of sacrilegious-like.”
“I didn’t agree with it," adds Scott. "But I mean being musically inclined, you understand, I like the sound of it. It fit kind of like a hand in glove.”
The Blind Boys are doing well these days, but they haven’t forgotten people like J.T. Hutton, a pastor in Birmingham. A half-century ago, when his eyesight was better, Hutton drove the Blind Boys on the road, and sang with them on the stage. Their first out-of-state trip? Memphis.
He recently spent time with them in Birmingham, and then, a few hours later, he dropped by the dressing room at the auditorium where the Blind Boys were going to sing. Soon, a chorus of other familiar voices filled the room.
Many songs have been sung, and many years have passed since these people first met. But in the eyes of the Blind Boys, they are forever young.
The Blind Boys can instantly recall any of the hundreds of songs in their repertoire. Scott even knew the words to a hymn Rather used to sing as a child: “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel.”
Then, the Blind Boys walked on stage, in the necessary procession that is their signature: One who can see leads the way for those who can’t.
Sixty years after they first appeared on stage, the Blind Boys of Alabama are still marching to the beat of a divine drummer.