Somewhere Along the Way, the Precious Lord Did Take Clarence Fountain’s Hand
There was no playbook for Clarence Fountain’s life.
Fountain, the lead singer of the gospel group most often known as The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, was 88 when he died June 3. He hadn’t sung much over the last 10 years, because a dialysis machine kept him tethered close to home, but for many decades he made music that delivered a whole lot more than he’d been given.
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama are still singing today, almost 80 years after they formed at what in 1939 was called the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in Talladega. Only Jimmy Carter remains from the original group and dozens of new singers have passed through over the years. But the powerful voice and style of Fountain was and is still the force that shaped their sound and their stage presence.
Can I get a witness?
During the golden age of gospel quartets, which started in the late 1940s, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama were front-line stars.
They performed traditional songs like Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “I’ll Fly Away,” often with their own arrangements. Their most popular numbers included the infectious “Oh Lord, Stand By Me” and the haunting “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But My Own.”
“Everybody’s Mother” became such a signature that they recorded a whole series of “Mother” songs, including “Alone and Motherless,” “When I Lost My Mother” and “Goodbye Mother.”
One of their modestly popular songs, “This May Be the Last Time,” was reworked by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards into a Rolling Stones hit. In a 2006 interview with Swampland.com, Fountain shrugged that off and turned it around, saying he loved that the Blind Boys had taken the Stones’s “I Just Want To See His Face” and turned its shadowy murkiness into a soaring spiritual.
Turning things around was part of Fountain’s skillset.
He was born Nov. 28, 1929, a month into the Depression. When he was 2, he developed an eye infection and a caregiver tried to treat it with a lye solution, which took care of both the infection and young Clarence’s eyesight.
The blind son of a black sharecropper in rural Depression Alabama wasn’t exactly looking at a charmed life.
At 8 he was sent to the segregated school, which didn’t have Cadillac facilities, but whose mission was legitimate: to find paths by which an unsighted person could make a living. Music was a major part of the curriculum.
Similar schools had sprung up throughout the South during the late 19th century, with alumni who included one of the greatest blues musicians ever, Blind Willie McTell. Fountain’s contemporaries included Ray Charles at The Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb in St. Augustine, Fla.
Fountain had always been drawn to singing and the church, where his parents were active and he would chime in with the choir. When he was 10, he and five classmates formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, inspired by traditional gospel groups like the Golden Gate Quartet.
The Goldens sang in a smooth harmony style, though their repertoire also included upbeat hand-clapping numbers.
The Happy Land Jubilee Singers, armed with their own set of traditional songs, became a popular live local act, singing for church groups and audiences like the “colored” soldiers training locally for World War II service.
A handful of black gospel groups over the years had made modest inroads into the mainstream market, going back to the touring Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s and including contemporary groups like the Golden Gate Quartet and the Charioteers.
Thanks to mass media like radio, there was also growing musical crossover between black and white performers by this time, with popular styles like jazz breaking down barriers.
But the music business itself, from its marketing to the widespread segregation at live performances, still perpetuated a segregated world.
That was the world into which the Happy Land Singers plunged when they dropped out of school in 1944 to give full-time singing a shot.
At a 1948 concert in Newark, they shared a bill with another group of blind singers, the Jackson Harmoneers from Mississippi.
Noting that many of their audiences simply referred to both ensembles as “the blind boys,” the groups decided after that show to rename themselves The Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
While they were often billed as rivals, they got along well off-stage, touring together and sometimes mix-and-matching singers when one group or the other needed a pinch-hitter.
Musically, Fountain’s lead singing style evolved from the smoother, more traditional sound into a hard-driving shout, keeping the melody, but punctuating songs with tent revival exhortations and hollers. It has been suggested among fans that Fountain’s evolution came in part from seeing a similar style work well for Archie Brownlee, leader of the Mississippi Blind Boys.
Fountain’s Blind Boys cut dozens of records over these years, starting on the small Coleman label and moving to the larger Vee Jay and Specialty labels among several others.
But the combination of a relatively limited market and the insidious record contracts of the time meant that the Blind Boys, like virtually every artist in every musical field, made their real living on the road.
That was a hard life, often requiring hundreds of miles of travel to the next one-nighter, or several maniacal drives to reach two and three churches in far-flung towns on a Sunday. Also, much of the work was in the South, where most hotels would not rent rooms and most restaurants would not serve food to the “colored.”
Singers learned to parlay it into a living. It still wasn’t even a little bit unusual that Fountain left the Blind Boys twice, once for 10 years, because the challenges were so relentless and bred so much exhausted tension.
In any case, he was back for the group’s big score, the 1983 off-Broadway production of Gospel at Colonus, a Sophocles drama reset in a black Pentecostal church. The play received critical acclaim and two Obie awards and the Blind Boys, who played Oedipus, finally became a major marketable name outside the black gospel circuit.
They recorded multiple albums, they were nominated for Grammys, they were in demand for tours in the U.S. and Europe. They were awarded a National Heritage Fellowship. It was still the road, but a little smoother.
Over the years, Fountain said, the group received repeated offers to follow gospel singers like Sam Cooke, Joe Hinton and Lou Rawls into rock ’n’ roll or pop. He was never tempted, he said. He sang for God, and that was not negotiable at any price.
Singers like Fountain still helped shape popular music, first rhythm and blues and then rock ’n’ roll. Artists from James Brown to Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett came straight out of Fountain’s hard-gospel style.
Nor would anyone have blinked an eye if the Blind Boys’s “Broken Heart of Mine” had been released into the R&B market. The only question is whether it would have been too intense for radio play.
Fountain and the Blind Boys would in later years record with secular artists and sing songs written by secular writers, though he stressed they picked songs with a spiritual message like Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You.”
Clarence Fountain wasn’t switching. He was adapting. When you have to write your own playbook, that’s what you do.