Clarence Fountain is 73 and he ain't scared a dyin'. Since 1939, the gruff-voiced singer has proclaimed the Lord in song as a member of the Blind Boys of Alabama. "I feel like the Lord brought me here to do this; he didn't bring me here to take me away right now," Fountain said in a phone interview. "He knew what I was gon' do before I even got started. But I'm ready. I ain't scared to go. Ain't nothin' you can do "bout it no way. Best thing you can do is try to get close to the Lord and say, "Here I am.""Fountain and the other original Blind Boys — Jimmy Carter and George Scott — have encountered plenty of chances to plunge into the world of secular rock 'n' roll, to go for the gold. Formed as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers at the Talladega School for the Blind, they traversed the Southern gospel circuit for years. In 1957, the group was signed to Specialty Records, an independent label with a bevy of gospel acts, when house producer Bumps Blackwell made labelmate Sam Cooke a star by transforming a gospel standard into "You Send Me."
Blackwell thought he could work the same mass-market mojo with the Blind Boys. They turned him down. "When we first started singin' gospel songs, I talked to the Lord myself and said I would never turn my back on him in my music," Fountain says. "You don't tell God a promise you can't keep. Sam changed his mind. Me and him was in the same studio. They gave him a deal. He took it. I passed mine by. He's gone."
Fountains pauses, as if to say, "I'm still here."
Seven years after leaving gospel for secular fame, Cooke was shot to death.
This got me wondering (and then asking): Does Fountain think a man can perform secular pop music and still be a good Christian?
He paused a good while. "I don't think so," he said. "The quote goes, you can't serve two masters. That's what the good book says. He said it. I didn't say it."
It can be a thin line between gospel and rock 'n' roll. The rhythms, the melodies, the harmonies, the feel can be quite similar. It often comes down to a matter of a few words.
On the new Blind Boys album Higher Ground, the group rocks Stevie Wonder's title track, with funky backing courtesy of pedal steel master Robert Randolph and his band. Beforehand, though, the song had to be tweaked. "It has a line in it, "Lovers, keep on loving." What I did was I took that line out and changed it to "prayers, keep on prayin'," Fountain explains. "That made it right. It wouldn't be right to say that (original) line. It would put us in the category with the rock folks."
All this careful attention to religious scruples has not stopped The Blind Boys from making moves to attract a wider audience. In 1983, they resuscitated their sagging career by appearing in the Broadway hit Gospel at Colonus, which transformed Sophocles" Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus into something of a holy-roller church service.
Fountain did not much ponder the conflict of playing a man who unwittingly has sex with his mother and then blinds himself. "They needed someone to do the job and I just did it," he says. "I knew I was just playing a part. There was a lot of praising the Lord in the play. Besides, those Greek things are always complicated to understand."
More recently, the Blind Boys" booking agent enlisted noted roots-music producer John Chelew to further blur the lines between blues, rock, R&B and gospel. Last year's terrific Spirit of the Century album found the aging vocal ensemble singing a combination of gospel standards and spiritually themed tunes by secular songsmiths like Tom Waits ("Jesus Gonna Be Here," "Way Down in the Hole"), Ben Harper ("Give a Man a Home") and Jagger/Richards ("Just Wanna See His Face"). They even set "Amazing Grace" to the chord changes of the whorehouse blues "House of the Rising Sun."
Chelew encased the songs and rough-hewn vocal harmonies in a swampy sound, played sublimely by an all-star lineup of blues talent that included guitarists David Lindley and John Hammond, harmonica titan Charlie Musselwhite and acoustic bassist Danny Thompson.
Fountain had to come to terms with some of the lyrics, especially Waits obtusely playful poetry. "Jesus gonna be here/ Gonna be here soon/ He's gonna cover us up with leaves and a blanket from the moon ..." That latter line had Fountain thinking, "What in the world ...?" Chelew and the Blind Boys huddled, came up with a suitable interpretation and went forward.
Spirit of the Century was licensed by Peter Gabriel's boutique imprint RealWorld. Behind heaps of critical adoration, the album sold surprisingly well and ushered the Blind Boys of Alabama into a new realm of work in clubs and small rock venues. The Chelew-produced Higher Ground, also on RealWorld, has continued to fan the flames.
Some of the Blind Boys" strict Baptist peers might frown on them consorting with sinners in places where they serve demon alcohol. Fountain prefers to see it the other way around: bringing the Lord's music to people outside of church. "That's the idea, to really get people to thinkin' that rock 'n' roll is not the only kind of music," he says. "The devil will make you more rock 'n' rollish. There is another type of music that can put you into other things, get you thinkin' about what the Lord can do for you."
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