The Blind Boys of Alabama
@ the Barbican
18 November 2009
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The Blind Boys of Alabama are; Jimmy Carter (vocals) Bishop Billy
Bowers (vocals) Ben Moore (vocals) Eric (Ricky) McKinnie (drums)
Joey Williams (lead guitar) Tracy Pierce (bass).
As The Blind Boys of Alabama celebrate their many years of continuous
harmonising, it’s a fitting time to ponder their amazing resilience.
What has kept them going for so long, and still sounding so great?
Rock-solid religious faith certainly helps account for their vibrant
longevity. So does their unshakeable conviction that they were put
here for the express purpose of singing. But an equally important
factor, not always shared by their peers, is the Blind Boys’
open-mindedness. Old-time Gospel music circles are often marked
by rigid conservatism and the dismissal of popular music as a worldly
temptation of the Devil. The Blind Boys, by contrast, shun worldliness
yet eagerly embrace the world, bringing spiritual music to secular
audiences in order to spread their message.
As a result, the group has formed fast friendships with an impressive
array of musicians venerable colleagues and youthful protégés
alike who span several generations and a wealth of genres. Many
of these major artists have asked the Blind Boys to guest on their
projects, and “Duets” documents the twenty-year history
of this rich, eclectic and cohesive interaction. The Blind Boys
are sought for their general wisdom, specific input, and intangibly
special presence, and it’s important to note that The Blind
Boys don’t accept every such invitation. The lyrical content
has to be right – not necessarily religious, per se, but spiritual
nonetheless. They also have to feel the song and believe that they
can put their own stamp on it. Once those criteria are met, the
Blind Boys of Alabama are in with enthusiasm, expertise, and soulful
It’s also rare for such an elderly, historic group to have
come so far and still straddle modern music’s cutting edge.
When the group first started singing in Alabama in 1939, few people
would have ever envisioned the Blind Boys performing beyond a small
circuit of Southern, black-community churches. By the 1980s, however,
the group’s breakthrough appearance in an Obie award-winning
musical – “The Gospel At Colonus” starring Morgan
Freeman - led to diverse popularity far beyond the Blind Boys’
original core following.
Since then the Blind Boys have released or reissued nearly 30 albums,
five of which – “Down In New Orleans,” “Go
Tell It On The Mountain,” “Higher Ground,” “Spirit
of the Century,” and “There Will Be A Light” (a
collaboration with Ben Harper) – have garnered Grammy awards.
(What’s more, the Recording Academy also honoured the Blind
Boys with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009).