Gospel band Blind Boys of Alabama play Friday in Grasss Valley
Special to Prospector
The Blind Boys of Alabama’s live shows are deeply moving musical events that appeal to audiences of all cultures, as evidenced by an international itinerary that has taken them to virtually every continent in the world.
Local audiences will get to experience that directly at 8 p.m. Friday, when the phenomenal, Grammy-winning gospel band plays at The Center for The Arts in Grass Valley.
With a musical career that spans over 75 years, the group has been recognized by The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with Lifetime Achievement Awards, inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and winners of five Grammy Awards, they have attained the highest levels of achievement.
The Blind Boys first sang together as kids at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the late 1930s, following that with years of touring during a time of whites-only bathrooms, restaurants and hotels.
The group began recording in 1948, releasing albums regularly since that time. In the 1950s, they had gospel hits with “Oh, Lord Stand by Me,” and “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But I Can’t See Mine.” They didn’t taste mainstream success until 1988, when they starred in the Obie Award winning Broadway musical, “Gospel at Colonus, which won two OBIE Awards, along with nominations for a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award.
The Blind Boys caught the attention of folks again, when they received a Grammy nomination for their 1992 album Deep River, which included an inspirational cover of Bob Dylan’s hit “I Believe in You.”
In 2001, they released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, winning their first Grammy Award. They followed that up, the next year by singing back-up vocals with Gabriel on his album Up and joining him on a world tour.
Subsequent Grammy-winning albums have found them working with Robert Randolph & the Family Band (2002’s Higher Ground), a plethora of special guests including Waits and Mavis Staples (2003’s Go Tell It On The Mountain), Ben Harper (2004’s There Will Be a Light), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2007’s Down in New Orleans).
In 2001, they moved firmly into the mainstream with the release of Spirit of the Century, a triumph that blended gospel, blues, soul and folk, the album won the 2001 Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album.
The Blind Boys have continued to broaden their audiences, even delving into the country genre with the release of “Take the High Road” in 2011. The album benefited from the contributions of country singers Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Hank Williams Jr. and Lee Ann Womack.
These days, as The Blind Boys enter their 90s, they continue to tour with the same intention that they began with.
Recently honored at the 22nd Annual Media Access Awards, 87-year-old Jimmy Carter — founding member and the Blind Boys’ current leader — was on hand to receive the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) Disability Awareness Award.
“We appreciate the accolades and we thank God for them, but we’re not interested in money or anything other than singing gospel,” he said. “We had no idea when we started our group, that we would make it this far. The secret to our longevity is, we love what we do. And when you love what you do, that keeps you motivated. That keeps you alive.”
In a Guardian interview, Carter was asked, “To what extent do you think being blind has influenced your music?”
He responded: “If you’re musically inclined, then it comes naturally to you whether or not you’re blind or sighted. It just comes naturally. We’ve had some great blind musicians: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap. As for difficulties, I think there are no difficulties that you can’t overcome.”
Phil Reser has written stories about American and international music acts. for over three decades. He holds a journalism degree from San Francisco State University.
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