Clarence Fountain, 88; led the Blind Boys of Alabama
NEW YORK — Clarence Fountain, who sang gospel music fit to call down the heavens as the leader of the award-winning Blind Boys of Alabama for more than 60 years, died Sunday at a hospital near his home in Baton Rouge, La. He was 88.
The Blind Boys’ manager, Charles Driebe, said the cause was complications of diabetes.
The Blind Boys of Alabama sang a raucous, exuberant style of gospel that mixed harmony vocals with impassioned call-and-response shouting intended to rouse an audience into a religious fervor.
Explaining the group’s sound to The New York Times in 1987, Ray Allen, a folklorist and music historian, said it had evolved from the more staid style known as jubilee gospel into one that is distinguished by “a prominent lead singer shouting and preaching and backed by a rhythm-and-blues band.”
“Vocally, it made use of stronger rhythms and vocal techniques, such as moaning, melisma, falsetto, and trance-induced kinds of behavior that had obvious antecedents in Caribbean or West African worship,” Allen continued. “The jubilee groups, by contrast, stood up straight and didn’t move around much.” The Blind Boys, he said, “were at the forefront of the transition.”
Mr. Fountain, who had a deep, versatile voice that became weathered over the decades, often sang lead. When he did, he could sound as explosive as James Brown. (Driebe said it might be more accurate to say that Brown sounded like Mr. Fountain.)
The Blind Boys had their roots in the mid-1940s at a segregated school for the blind in Talladega, Ala., where Mr. Fountain and five friends formed a group they originally called the Happy Land Jubilee Singers.
Renamed the Blind Boys, the group was well established on the gospel circuit by the time many other performers, including Otis Redding, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Brown, became famous for moving from gospel to secular music.
Mr. Fountain said that over the years some producers had tried to persuade him and the group to make pop records, but he refused.
“I didn’t turn my back on the Lord,” he said on the NPR program “Morning Edition” in 2001. “I said I wanted to sing gospel music and I wanted to sing it for the Lord.”
Still, the Blind Boys’ foot-stomping sound appealed to secular audiences — and to secular artists. They worked with Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Tom Waits, Aaron Neville, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Blind Boys became more open to covering songs by artists such as Reed, the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Dylan, Prince, and Curtis Mayfield, as long as the lyrics did not betray their spirituality.
The results could be striking. In one instance, the group sang the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” over the Animals’ arrangement of the traditional song “The House of the Rising Sun.”
“I’ve taken the theory that music is music, and all you have to do is just sing it and keep your lyrics clean and you’re on your way,” Mr. Fountain said on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” in 2002. “So we try to put the gospel feel to it, and it makes it much better than it was when it was rock ’n’ roll, you know?”
In 1994, the Blind Boys received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Their “Spirit of the Century” won the 2001 Grammy for best traditional gospel album, and they went on to win four more Grammys before receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2009.
Mr. Fountain leaves his wife, Barbara Robertson, and several children.