Courtesy of Blind Ambition Management
The members of Blind Boys of Alabama, a terrific gospel group that first formed back in the 1940s, initially met at a school for the blind in a little town in Alabama called Talladega. They started singing together and quickly formed a group that specialized in both “jubilee” and “soul” gospel.
“When we hit the road, we just wanted to get out and sing gospel music,” says band leader Jimmy Carter. who brings the group to town on Sunday for a show at Trinity Cathedral. “We weren’t concerned with getting all the accolades. We weren’t even looking for that. Jubilee would be the equivalent to what rap is today. The only difference is that we were singing it and not talking it. And soul gospel is when your emotions come into play. You think about how good God has been to you and you put that into music. There were other groups out at that time that did that. The Soul Stirrers and the Pilgrim Travels. There was the Golden Gate Quartet. There was another blind group, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. They were out there too.”
During the '60s, the Blind Boys of Alabama performed at Civil Rights rallies; during the '70s, the band fell out of favor. But a key breakthrough came in the '80s as the band took part in a play called The Gospel at Colonus
“It was a play concerning Oedipus,” explains Carter. “It was a Greek tragedy. We got that together and we took that play to Broadway. That’s when we really got exposed to all types of people. We could sing to all different types of people. That really was the turning point in the Blind Boys career.”
In 2001, the group released Spirit of the Century
on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. The album mixed traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and won the first of the group’s various Grammy Awards.
“Peter Gabriel is very nice,” says Carter. “We would collaborate with just about anybody as long as we could deal with the music. You have to understand, even though we collaborated with many other people, we did not change our routine. We stuck to gospel music. That’s what we do. If the material didn’t have a gospel flavor to it, we couldn’t use that. It was a good experience. He was a very nice fella and he treated us good.”
In 2013, they worked with Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) to release I’ll Find A Way
, a collection of old and new tunes.
“Our manager was behind that,” Carter explains. “He came to use one day and asked us if we wanted to do an album with Justin Vernon. I said, ‘Fine. Who is he?’ After we met and got to talking and listened to his material, which was good, we did the recording at his house. He had a studio in his house in Wisconsin and we recorded in the bitter cold in November. You can imagine how cold it was, but he had a warm house and a warm house so everything went well. He had some songs that we knew but we hadn’t done them. The song ‘I Shall Not Be Moved.’ That’s an old hymn from the church. That song has been around for a long time. He brought that to us. He has some good stuff going on.”
The band’s most recent album, last year’s Talkin’ Christmas!
, features a number of original Christmas tunes. “Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn” benefits from a ragtime piano melody and call-and-response vocals. The title track features a funk guitar riff and some old school organ. The grooves are so good, they appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike.
“This is our second Christmas record [after 2003’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
],” explains Carter. “Our producer Chris Goldsmith, he was in charge of that. He wanted to do another one. We wanted to do it. And we wanted to do it too. We went to his house and started getting some songs together. We got [singer-guitarist]Taj Mahal on there. He is a great guitar player and singer and he’s a great musician. It was a privilege to have him on it.”
Carter says the guys have also recorded a Christmas song with Neil Diamond. And after decades of performing and recording, they still enjoy hitting the road.
“When you love what you do, it keeps you motivated,” he says. “When you hear that response from the crowd and know that they’ve been enjoying the music, it makes you want keep going.”
Blind Boys of Alabama, 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, 2230 Euclid Ave., 866-468-3401. Tickets: $43.50, trinitycleveland.org.