The Blind Boys of Alabama are a five-time Grammy Award winning gospel group who first sang together in 1939. After seven decades of touring, countless prestigious appearances, and a successful discography, the Blind Boys of Alabama have created their own solid musical history.
The on-stage configuration of the group currently consists of seven people: three blind singers — Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, guitarist and musical director, Joey Williams, and a keyboard player, a bass player, and a drummer.
The Blind Boys’ Mission
Since their formation over 70 years ago, the Blind Boys of Alabama’s self-proclaimed goal is to spiritually uplift audiences. The gospel group has also been a source of inspiration for those with disabilities. In the words of one of the group’s blind members, Ricky Mckinnie, “Our disability doesn’t have to be a handicap. It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you do. And what we do is sing good gospel music.”
1930s–1940s: Meeting and formation
The Blind Boys of Alabama first sang together in the school chorus in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama. All around nine years old at the time, the founding members were Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, George Scott, Velma Bozman Traylor, Johnny Fields, Olice Thomas, and the only sighted member, J. T. Hutton. The earliest version of the group was known as “The Happyland Jubilee Singers” and originally performed for World War II-era soldiers at training camps in the South. The group’s first professional performance was on June 10, 1944. In 1945, the members dropped out of school and began touring the gospel circuit.
In 1948, a Newark, New Jersey promoter booked two sets of blind gospel singers – the Happy Land Jubilee Singers from Alabama and the Jackson Harmoneers from Mississippi – and advertised the program as “Battle of the Blind Boys.” A friendly rivalry sprouted between the two groups and continued henceforth. The two acts soon changed their names to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and often toured together, occasionally swapping members. In 1948, The Blind Boys recorded their first single, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine” on the Veejay label. It was a hit and lead to a series of recordings on various record labels.
1950s: The Black Gospel Years
The 1950s were an important decade for black gospel music and the Blind Boys were one of the most prominent groups. Artists across various musical genres like pop and rock began to pull inspiration from black gospel music.
1960s–1970s: Staying true to their roots
During the 60’s and 70’s, soul music gained favor as a new type of secular black music. As a traditional gospel group, the fortunes of The Blind Boys of Alabama waned during these decades. Soul music was spiritual and socially engaged pop music, and its sales quickly exceeded those of its gospel forerunners. For this reason, soul music became the more financially successful route for many gospel artists. The Blind Boys of Alabama remained steadfast to their original mission and decided not to take the path to fame and fortune, but rather to remain purely gospel singers.
Even though societal trends were shifting, The Blind Boys continued to be active in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Over the span of these two decades, the gospel group released thirteen more albums and worked with several different record labels,including recording for the Vee-Jay label from 1963 to 1965. In the 1960s, the group’s hard-driving gospel sound was imitated by people like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Marvin Gaye. In 1969, Fountain left the group for a decade to try to make it on his own, and the group re-formed with all the original members in the late ’70s.
The band also joined the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s, performing at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1980s–1990s: Breakout into the mainstream
Secular audiences caught a glimpse of the group at the World’s Fair in Knoxville in 1982 and again in 1983.
In 1983, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama began appearing collectively as Oedipus in the musical theater production “The Gospel at Colonus.” Up until this point, the group had primarily played for black church audiences. The play was highly acclaimed as a landmark in American Musical History, receiving two OBIE Awards and nominations for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. This production brought the Blind Boys to the attention of a mainstream audience. With this exposure, the Blind Boys began working in different genres and alongside more popular artists.
The Blind Boys caught the ears of more listeners via their Grammy-nominated 1992 album Deep River, produced by Booker T. Jones, which featured a version of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You.” The Blind Boys continued experimenting with contemporary popular music with 1995’s live album I Brought Him With Me and 1997’s funk-leaning Holding On.