With the release of Almost Home, their first new album in three years, the legendary vocal group Blind Boys of Alabama culminate a legacy that stretches back a full seven decades. It’s a remarkable trajectory, borne in the most challenging of circumstances, but 70 years later, two original members, Charles Fountain and Jimmy Carter, still remain at the helm, upholding southern gospel tradition while consisting pushing at the boundaries and finding continuing relevance with contemporary audiences. With five Grammys under their collective belts (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), entry into the Gospel Hall of Fame and stunning collaborations with dozens of artists of note, The Blind Boys have done more to bring their sacred sounds to the foreground than any other artist or group mining similar terrain. The new album is a testament to that prowess, but it also serves to cap a career exemplified by the stirring sound of their seamless harmonies and profound conviction.
To celebrate this milestone, we offer a list of 20 of The Blind Boys of Alabama’s most momentous musical accomplishments.
Although the song was covered repeatedly since originally written by Curtis Mayfield, it’s the reverence and spiritual sentiment imbued in The Blind Boys‘ rendition that turns the song into a fervent prayer for salvation and determination. The stoic harmonies drive the song forward, but with each member of the group soloing throughout, the passion and purpose makes the delivery especially expressive overall.
Though not the song of the same name as sung by Ben E. King, “Stand By Me” still comes across with the same urgent plea, although in this case they’re addressing the Lord and not a would-be lover. The song comes across a chant, a rhythmic surge that drives it from beginning to end. No plea for salvation has ever sounded so emphatic.
The Blind Boys completely redefine this Jimmy Cliff classic, turning the anguish inherent in the original into a soulful, subdued statement of fact. In that sense, the song is transformed into one of acceptance and acquiescence, looking forward with calmness and peace of mind. Here again is an outstanding example of how the group can takes a singular standard, transform it and make it their own.
Another entry from the new album Almost Home, this soulful ballad restates the obvious. Beautifully arranged and sung with their usual resonance and resilience, it’s a song that effectively sums up The Blind Boys of Alabama’s very reason for being—their ability to find comfort and assurance through prayer by lifting their voices to express faith and devotion. Those who have witnessed their songs of solace over part or parcel of the of the past 70 years can only be pleased that they did.
Another oft-covered spiritual, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” gets a powerful, pleading treatment packed with the drive and determination with which the song was always intended. The combined wail and wallop of the delivery is as convincing as it is compelling. And no one shouts out a song more emphatically than the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Under normal circumstance a pure pop song like this wouldn’t necessarily qualify for the group’s repertoire, however, given the obvious upward gaze this track implies, the melding of urgency and messaging makes it a perfect fit. Likewise, with Robert Randolph and the Family Band handling the instrumental duties, the combination becomes all the more compelling.
It’s fitting that The Blind Boys of Alabama should cover this stoic song of protest, one which became a veritable civil rights anthem. They may not always put their personal struggles front and center, but regardless, they reside below the surface, given all the obstacles they were forced to overcome. The fact that they triumphed on their own terms clearly indicates that the sentiments expressed in this song continue to resonate through everything they represent.
A testament to unwavering faith and fulfilment, this moving ballad is as soulful as they come, richly etched and sung with conviction and clarity. Ben Moore, who sings the remarkable lead vocal on the song, had recently lost his wife of many decades, and yet he sings with a resolute determination that belies any sense of loss or sorrow. It’s as if to say, when you’re at your lowest you can also feel closest to your Maker.
A Bob Dylan cover is always an excellent pick, but this track from Dylan’s gospel period finds its full essence in the hands of The Blind Boys and special guest Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Vernon’s vocal sounds unusually somber, but elevated by the group’s harmonies, the song is lifted to new heights that even its composer wasn’t able to accomplish. Profoundly moving, it’s now decidedly memorable, as well. A second listen to the original may well be in order.
New recruit Paul Beasley, a noted gospel singer in his own right, takes a turn in the spotlight and establishes a new home within the group context. His remarkably high pitched soprano establishes his solitary stance, but it’s further illuminated by The Blind Boys’ stirring harmonies. The song is rendered in a distinctly low key delivery, but the power and inner conviction is undeniable. It’s hard not to be moved.
Here again,The Blind Boys imbue a commercially successful song with the spiritual reverence the lyrics call for. Written by Hank Williams, the song finds them sharing their reading with the writer’s own son, Hank Jr., and turning in a stirring performance in the process. The combined voices and traditional country-tinged arrangement makes this sound like a sure shot for a contemporary Christian hit parade, all rousing and revved up in the process.
It’s hardly surprising that The Blind Boys of Alabama would offer up an album of Christmas music, in this case, the profoundly reverent Go Tell It On The Mountain. It’s no less surprising that when you have special guests throughout the set, you might get relegated to a supporting role. So while Boys cede the lead to guests Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson, the sumptuous harmonies do make this oft-covered song quite special.
If there was ever a spiritual more deserving of The Blind Boys’ delivery, one would be hard pressed to name it. Surprisingly, the arrangement and even the melody itself takes on another tone altogether, borrowing almost wholly from another traditional standard, “House of the Rising Sun.” The ability of the band to veer from the obvious into entirely new realms altogether is certainly startling, but it works. Here again, the tone and tenacity is never in doubt.
The Blind boys’ dirge-like treatment of this traditional standard is unexpectedly enhance by a vintage, back porch arrangement that sounds as if it was dredged up from a Louisiana bayou. A confessionary tale, it takes on added implications through the group’s solemn, sober testimonial-like treatment. Nevertheless, there’s a genuine sense of regret and remorse underlying the delivery, underscoring the authenticity inherent in their conviction.
Another emotional entreaty, “Motherless Child has been covered by any number of artists in any number of ways, but the Blind Boys’ sad sentiments carries a sure sense of heartbreak and loneliness that’s practically palpable throughout. A supple arrangement underscores the proceedings, but so is the ache and longing. In a time where alienation and injustice are as prevalent as ever, this strikes close to home.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that practically every popular couple The Blind Boys tackles sounds as if it could have been written expressly for them. That’s never been truer than in this stirring take on the Eric Clapton-penned/Steve Winwood-sung Blind Faith classic “Presence of the Lord.” While this version adapts an instrumental arrangement that could have been lifted straight from Sunday services, thanks in large part to Billy Preston’s keyboard contributions, they also hold close to the signature take, with Clarence Fountain’s solo vocal easily stealing the spotlight.
Although this song is considered a classic, it’s never been more pertinent than in these troubled times. With soul legend Solomon Burke guesting at the fore, the combination of voices is, as always, assured and emphatic. The message is measured, yet meaningful, direct and determined. “None of us are free / If one of us is chained.” Indeed, here is an homage to our shared humanity, one that’s never been more clear or compelling.
So what’s a good Jewish boy like the late Lou Reed doing offering a plea to the Lord and Savior? It doesn’t matter; Given Reed’s typically morose vocals, a downcast delivery is to be expected. Yet, with backing from The Blind Boys, this plea for redemption becomes all the more moving and meaningful. It’s The Blind Boys themselves that bolster Reed’s fragile footing and put him, and themselves, on an upward track towards eternal aspirations.
“There will never be any peace until God is seated at the conference table,” The Blind Boys sing with solemn conviction and ongoing insistence. A plea to look to the Lord for inspiration, the song states its point simply and succinctly, repeating the key verse repeatedly as if to deny any doubt. And indeed, any other conclusion is a mute point, indeed.
While this particular song couldn’t make for a better match in terms of marrying The Blind Boys’ fervent faith with the promise of eternal salvation, their version adds a joy and jubilation that exceeds the somewhat rote take of the original. Given their exuberance, it’s hard not to take them at face value.