Fountain of faith

“If you lean on the Lord, he’ll bring you out!”

The first time Clarence Fountain, one-third of the triumvirate of triumphant gospel voices that is the Blind Boys of Alabama, says this to you, his buttery rasp trembling and shaking and groaning under the sweet weight of faith, you are diminished by his awe.

But after about 30 minutes on the phone with the sightless singer, when you realize he’s said this same thing to you at least 15 times, you feel more beaten than starstruck. His faith has whipped you but good.

A conversation with Fountain is a lot like listening to recent Blind Boys recordings, where, after only a short while, you are in the music’s thrall, repeatedly getting sucker-punched by a religious fervor you may not even begin to share.

“The Lord can do anything,” Fountain intones at least once in our phone conversation, “but one thing he can’t do is, he can’t fail.”

Neither, it seems, can the Blind Boys. Though disavowing concern with most earthly glories, lately all they touch turns straight into gold.

The group, together now for more than 60 years and with nearly two dozen albums to its credit, racked up a recent Grammy for the rousing Spirit of the Century (Real World, 2000), and is likely in contention for another for this year’s blissful Higher Ground (Real World). The music — casually fusing quartet-style gospel, classic R&B, Delta-style blues and plain ol’ rock ‘n’ roll — is unlikely to have ever found favor in the little Methodist church outside of Selma, Ala., where Fountain first heard the Good Word way back in the day. But it’s reaching huge, adoring crowds in the here and now.

The Blind Boys met in 1939 at the Talladega (Ala.) Institute for the Deaf and Blind, reputedly a horrid place back then, when beatings from staff members were common.

“I came up on the rough side of the mountain,” says Fountain, who was 10 when he started his singing career.

The original group of five, all standout members in Talladega’s large choir, left the school in the early 1940s to try their fate on the gospel circuit. Known first as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, they changed names in 1948 while doing a show in Newark, N.J., with another blind group, the Jackson Harmoneers from Mississippi, led by another firebrand vocalist, Archie Brownlee. The show was billed as a contest between the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Blind Boys of Mississippi; the new names stuck in the public’s mind, beginning a friendly rivalry between what would soon become two of gospel’s most prominent acts.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are now down to three original members, with Fountain, the shoutin’, growlin’, show-stoppin’ gravel-and-honey-throated leader; deep-voiced George Scott; and sweet, high tenor Jimmy Carter.

Fountain’s voice is ragged but surprisingly tender, as if he’s singing through splinters of the one true cross. Yet it’s when the three chime in together — as on their startling version of “Amazing Grace,” sung atop the melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” or their lovely reworking of Ben Harper’s “Give a Man a Home” — that you understand, in a place within you that you may not even be able to name, that these men are tapped into something. Call it something bigger — call it anything you want. This is what guileless faith sounds like.

Fountain hails from “a little country place” outside of Selma, where he grew up alongside Sam Cooke, former leader of the sanctified Soul Stirrers, best remembered now as the classic soul singer with the chiseled sex appeal whose rampant womanizing led to a gunshot death in a low-rent L.A. motel.

Though the Blind Boys hit a rough patch in the late ’60s, with Fountain leaving for a while and doing a few solo albums, he returned to the fold when the group was approached in 1981 to help with the eventual Broadway smash The Gospel at Colonus, a retelling of Oedipus Rex in the form of an African-American church service. Fountain sang the part of Oedipus, the tragic blind hero.

“We put the real feel to it,” he recalls. “The gospel feel.”

The group hit another milestone when it hooked up with producer John Chelew, known for his work with John Hiatt and others. Chelew, who helmed the Blind Boys’ last two albums, has led the group into revamping select pieces of secular music with a host of world-class musicians (Harper, John Hammond, David Lindley and others).

“You just can’t hang in there with the things that used to be,” Fountain explains. “You got to go along with whatever the producers say. And if you follow that, you might be all right.”

Several songs from Spirit of the Century were written by musicians (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, for instance) who’ve cultivated reputations for having that proverbial one foot in hell. Fountain doesn’t even blink at that.

“Let ’em stay there,” he says. “We’ll use ’em to our advantage.”

To hear Fountain tell it, it’s no great shakes to take a song rooted in wickedness and slap the stamp of righteousness on it.

“You get a song that you want to sing,” Fountain advises, “and you put a gospel flavor to it, and then you got a song.

“Ain’t hard to do,” he adds.

Nonetheless, not all Chelew’s song suggestions have gone over easily. The clangy Tom Waits rave-up “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” for instance, sounds from Waits’ mouth as if the devil himself was heralding the Savior’s return. The Blind Boys balked at first at recording the cut, which now opens Spirit with a bang.

“We just didn’t understand it,” Fountain says. “It’s an odd man that wrote it. What some writers do, they write things that don’t even make sense.”

There’s a line in the song about Jesus returning in “a brand-new Ford.” Fountain took particular exception to that.

“I know that, to the Gospel, that doesn’t make sense,” he explains.

Jesus wouldn’t be showing up in any old Ford, Fountain has said several times since. It would be a Cadillac, to be sure.

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