SAN FRANCISCO — The Blind Boys of Alabama have recorded nearly two dozen albums and are now in their 70s. But it is their most recent release, “Spirit of the Century,” that has brought wider fame and scores of new fans.
The album has sold nearly 125,000 copies worldwide since its release in April 2001, and this year won the Blind Boys their first Grammy, for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. They are touring all year, and have a new album, “Higher Ground,” due out in September.
The Blind Boys have always been men on a mission.
“This is a gospel show,” front-man Clarence Fountain said before a recent concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore. “We’ve been doing this all our lives. We’re trying to get a message out and the message is that everyone should turn to the Lord.”
After a string of hits in the 1950s, including “Oh, Lord Stand by Me,” and “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But I Can’t See Mine,” the Blind Boys were urged by their manager, Bumps Blackwell, to switch from gospel to more mainstream rock or R&B.
They refused, preferring to spread gospel to new listeners.
“You’re always going to have people who are curious,” says Fountain. “All types of people come to the shows and you’re hoping to reach them.”
The Blind Boys began singing together at the Talledega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in 1939. Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott — the three surviving members of the original group of seven — met as students in Alabama, learning to read music in Braille and singing in the glee club. They called themselves the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, and performed at churches and social functions.
After school, they turned professional.
“The plan was to go out and do what you can and hope to become famous,” Fountain said.
The Blind Boys’ success in the South led to a recording deal with Art Rupe’s legendary Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, an R&B and gospel powerhouse that featured Little Richard and Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke.
Members have come and gone, but Fountain says the Blind Boys always stick to songs with Christian themes, or ones that could be interpreted as such. Women, drinking and carousing — all traditional blues fare — are out.
That didn’t seem to matter to the pot-smoking, mostly fortysomething, nearly all-white crowd at the San Francisco concert.
“We’re singing with inspiration from on high,” said Fountain. “Everything we do comes from the Lord. We do things that are appealing to the Lord, we think.”
Fountain, who lives in Baton Rouge, La., and Carter, who lives in Sacramento, were backed by a six-piece band that played on their Grammy-winning album. Although arthritis forced Fountain to sit while singing, his energy was infectious. Scott, who lives in North Carolina, no longer travels with the band.
The album features a blend of traditional gospel and contemporary blues. Versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Just Wanna See His Face,” Ben Harper’s “Give a Man a Home” and Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” fit comfortably alongside classics like “Motherless Child,” and “Amazing Grace” set to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun.”
The project grew out of a 1998 collaboration between veteran bluesman John Hammond and the Blind Boys, who performed “Motherless Child” while on tour together.
“Spirit of the Century” is “a combination of old techniques, old material with a modern sensibility,” says the Blind Boys’ manager, Charles Driebe.
Hammond and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite are among the guest musicians on the album.
Musselwhite grew up on gospel in Memphis, Tenn. and first heard the Blind Boys in the 1950s.
“I just love those guys,” he said. “Whenever I listen to them I get goosebumps. Their singing is always great. They have so much soul and feeling.”