Clarence Fountain Interview
by James Calemine
On September 3, 2002, Real World Records released the new Blind Boys of Alabama album titled Higher Ground, featuring Robert Randolph & the Family Band as the backing musicians. This gospel collection covers traditional and original songs, as well as compositions by Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Prince and Ben Harper, who sings on three of the album’s songs.
This soulful CD may land the Blind Boys another Grammy award, but if nothing else, Higher Ground elevates modern gospel and spiritual music to another level. This summer we spoke to Clarence Foundation of the Blind Boys about Higher Ground.
You grew up in Alabama, right?
Yes, old Alabama.
What were some of your musical influences growing up?
Well, we always listened to music that was out at the time, whatever it was—a hit in gospel or rhythm and blues at the time. B.B. King had out “3 O’clock In the Morning”, and that was a big record of the day. It was a big hit for him. That record was out in, oh let me think, 1952 or 1953. He had out one of those blues hits, and that’s really one of the ones that put him on the top. Everything we could hear we listened to because it made us better to know how to get out and sing to the public. We were able to concentrate on what was going on in that day or year. Rock and roll was just beginning to get big and it made us aware of what was going on, so we went out and wrote a couple of tunes because we were on Specialty Records out in California—a very good label. They were big time in gospel, but they also had Little Richard and later Sam Cooke, the Blind Boys, Soul Stirrers, the Gospel Harmonators, and all those good gospel groups. They made a pile of hits for Little Richard. Art Rupe was a smart man.
I’m sure you lived a very religious upbringing. Talk about how it influenced your music and life.
My mother and father were in the Methodist church. My daddy played a big role in the church. They had a pretty good choir so I used to chime in with them; even when I was too little to sing I was getting my music thing down. In 1944 we started to hit the road. I was eleven then, and I was tired of school. The Talladega School for the Blind had twelve grades, but the school had been standing since the 1880s.
The Talladega School for the Blind was where you met the rest of the group?
That’s right. 1939. Me, Jimmy Carter, George Scott, a guy named Johnny Fields, Tommy Gilmore—all these guys were the guys who would go to sing. We used to listen to gospel music every day. The Golden Gate Quartet was a big thing in that day. They were already in society singing to the masses of people.
Charles Driebe, the Blind Boys manager, told me last week in Europe someone asked you to inform them of the first album you ever bought, and you told them only 78s existed in those days, because there were no albums. That goes back a ways.
Right. Well, you know back in those days it was only 78s because albums hadn’t been discovered yet.
It appears the Blind Boys’ message has always remained the same—to spread the gospel. You guys never sold out for big money, which seems to be even more difficult in those days. Y’all remained true to the spirituality of the music, even with hits like “Oh Lord Stand By Me” and “I Can See Everybody’s Mother, But I Can’t See Mine”.
Yes, our intention has always been the same. It’s interesting for you to be aware of that because, you see, we wanted to sing gospel and they wanted us to sing the blues. We were there when Sam Cooke made his big rock and roll debut. We were there when the man gave him his contract because he gave us one too, if we wanted it, but we didn’t want to do it because we weren’t a rock and roll product. When Ray Charles came along and started the ball rolling then in the early 60s we went to California and we had a chance to really go places because they wanted a contrast between Ray and I. they thought that contrast would be a good thing so there would be competition. I didn’t want that, so I didn’t do it.
Competition between you and Ray Charles shouldn’t have been necessary.
Well, see, they figured they could take some money and say, ‘Here boy, take this money.’ That’s what they wanted us to do, but they figured out I wasn’t that kind of guy. It was much harder then. They knew you didn’t want to turn money down.
They figured you’d take the bait, forcing you to feel as if you were just lucky to get offered a deal.
James, you got that exactly right. Our turnaround happened when I met this guy that wrote a play and took it overseas, and it was not successful, so what he did was he came and wanted to talk to our guitar player who was playing with the Blind Boys. He introduced us to this guy. So we sat down—me, Morgan Freeman, and a couple guys—and we put music to this play called The Gospel at Colonus. What they did was take it to Broadway, and then from that we were able to launch our career. We didn’t really know how big we were overseas. Between 1983 and 1988 when Colonus went to Broadway, we did a lot of plays in Atlanta, Texas, Chicago, and all these places. We were singing in the play. I did a little acting with Morgan—but when this play came out it was an instant hit and we got a chance to sing to the masses of people. That enabled us to get an agency out in California and then we started going all over the world.
You guys won an Obie Award for The Gospel at Colonus.
Yeah, that’s pretty good. I think it would have been much better, but the producer of the play offended some guys on Broadway and they decided to let us go. Even in spite of that we came out smelling like a rose.
To what degree do you believe money and fame dilute an artist’s talent or faith?
Here’s what I think about that. See, God has the last word on everything. Of course, quite naturally, there are a lot of people who don’t believe that. God has a way that is not known to us. We don’t understand God’s way. The Bible says, “His ways are above ours as high as the heaven is from the earth.” So, I’m saying that to you because I remained faithful in everything I did, and the Lord has blessed us now more than he ever has. But you have to wait on God. You can’t say this was supposed to happen and all that. It’s God’s plan. When you walk the straight and narrow and do the things god wants you to do, he’ll bless you in your age. He’ll bless you more than ever—and that’s what he’s done for us now. Things are jumping these days.
Over a period of sixty odd years, the Blind Boys have played tent shows, revivals, folk, and blues festivals. You’ve appeared in the TV show Beverly Hills 90210, and received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1994. You opened for Tom Petty in 1999, and recorded with artists such as Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and Ry Cooder. Now an HBO show called The Wire uses the Blind Boys version of the Tom Waits song “Way Down In the Hole”.
All of that is God working. People must be able to see that.
It’s refreshing to know music so authentic and alive still delivers a message to wayward pilgrims in huge festival crowds, because for some people the Blind Boys’ music gets them as close as they’ll ever come to church.
It thrills me, you know. Once again, that’s God working—not me. You can’t do anything on your own without God. With him we can do all things. People just don’t realize this. When the tragic 9-11 happened in New York last year that was God waking us up. He’s still in control.
Talk a little bit about the two Blind Boy albums, Holdin’ On and I Brought Him with Me.
Okay, well, these are good records on the House of Blues label, but the House of Blues made a mistake. They were with BMG, one of the biggest distributors in the world, and somebody made somebody mad messing everything up and they cancelled the House of Blues contract. You may be able to find these records, but what the House of Blues did, they discontinued working with BMG. When the record companies make a deal with the distributors and a breakdown comes, well, we don’t have anything to say because they made the deal, not us. House of Blues can’t handle records—that’s one of their weaknesses.
Your relationship with John Hammond led to the Blind Boys gathering Charlie Musselwhite, David Lindley, Danny Thompson, and recording the Grammy winning for best traditional soul gospel album, Spirit of the Century, a very song-oriented compilation with songwriters including the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, and Ben Harper, as well as old traditional songs. The Blind Boys possess a great ability to alter the balance between dark and light within songs. When I heard the Rolling Stones version of “I Just Want to See his Face”, I always interpreted it as having cynical, “doubting Thomas” lyrics: “I DON’T want to walk and talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face.” But you guys turn it around. The Blind Boys render “Amazing Grace” lyrics to “House of the Rising Son” music. Also, on Higher Ground”, the example shines in reading the 23rd Psalm over Funkadelic’s sinister “Me & My folks."
You know I met that ol’ George Clinton the other day. He’s a nice cat. But, yes. You know the Stones covered an old song of ours called “The Last Time”
That’s right. Didn’t they change it a little and made it into a boy/girl thing?
Right. I didn’t envy them for doing this, but down the road, we came along and did one of their tunes and I could really relate to that song, because originally I always wanted to see God’s face. My faith has always been upbeat. I’ve always believed that God can do anything except fail. God cannot fail.
So, on September 3, 2002, Real World records will release Higher Ground, a choice collection of traditional gospel compositions along with cover songs by talented songwriters featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama backed by Robert Randolph and his Family Band. Talk about this new project.
Robert Randolph better be careful. He’s gonna go rock and roll, if he ain’t already gone. That’s what I think because money to young people is not what it was in my day. All we really wanted to do was make a living. We weren’t worried about how much money we were gonna make in the future. He should be careful because they are going to try and switch him over to rock and roll.
Higher Ground is a very strong album. It’s much more gospel than the bluesy Spirit of the Century. Higher Ground blends the blood of old gospel singers with the blood of new gospel players, and it creates a strong effect.
Well that’s what they wanted to do. I went along with them because they had a good idea and they wanted to appeal to the young folk. When you can appeal to the masses of people, you got it made. What we try to do to these songs is put the gospel flavor into them. We take out the words that don’t mean anything. For instance on the Stevie Wonder song “Higher Ground” the lyric goes: “lovers keep on loving”—we take that out: “prayers keep on praying”—we put that in. We don’t want to say things that make us look like rock and rollers. I just wanted to sing and serve God—that was my most important thing. When you can sing all faces of gospel you got it under control. We can sing contemporary, we can sing traditional, four part harmonies, five part harmonies—you ring it, we can sing it. I’d like to get one more Grammy. I’d be real happy with that. I think this next record, Higher Ground, is a real good record. We can pick up some good information in doing the things we do and doing them well. The Lord will take care of the rest.