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by Wendy Lee Nentwig

October 13, 2013

Best of The Blind Boys of Alabama

by Wendy Lee Nentwig  |  October 13, 2013

The Blind Boys of Alabama formed in 1939 in the Yellowhammer State, made up of a group of young boys from the Alabama Institute for the Blind in Talladega. Now, nearly 75 years later, the group has seen a rotating cast (not all of them blind), but their initial goal of spiritually uplifting audiences hasn't changed at all.

In the 1940s and '50s, they toured throughout the segregated South. During the 1960s, they sang at benefits for Martin Luther King, Jr., providing a soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement. There were opportunities to sell out for "secular" fame, but they stood firm. Then, at the turn of the century, they found a way to cross over without selling their souls.

In 2001, the Blind Boys released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and The Rolling Stones. It earned them their first Grammy Award. The next year they backed Gabriel on his Up album and joined him on tour. That was only the beginning. Their cover of Waits' "Way Down In the Hole" was picked as the theme song for the first season of The Wire, and they went on to work with Ben Harper, Mavis Staples and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Vernon and his buddy Phil Cook helmed the Blind Boys' 2013 disc, I'll Find a Way, handpicking the songs for the project. But they recorded in Wisconsin, and the ailing Clarence Fountain, a founding member of the group and its leader for many decades, couldn't make the trip. So they recorded his robust bass vocals in Birmingham and added them to the mix.

In total, the Blind Boys have won five Grammys and four GMA Dove Awards -- not that they're keeping count: "We appreciate the accolades and we thank God for them," says Jimmy Carter, a founding member and the group's leader for the past five years. "But we're not interested in money or anything other than singing gospel."

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