Remembering Clarence Fountain, a Gospel Legend

The singer, who died at 88, was a founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, and embodied the vicissitudes of a decades-long career in music.

Clarence Fountain performs during the 17th Annual East Coast International Blues and Roots Music Festival on April 16, 2006
James Green / Getty

The singers are dressed in sharp matching suits and dark sunglasses, facing an audience of several hundred. Standing at the center of the stage, lead singer Clarence Fountain holds a microphone with one hand and rests his other hand on his hip, as he begins to speak to the audience.

“I didn’t come here looking for Jesus,” he says, while the other singers moan in harmony behind him. “I brought Him along with me.”

Fountain removes his hand from his hip and it begins to shake wildly, as though possessed with a spirit of its own. Fountain lets out a quick laugh: ha ha.

“If this was a rock ‘n’ roll show here, you could hear ‘em hollering all down the streets,” he continues, grinning wide. “If James Brown can come in here and do the twist, and do the mess around for the devil, then I feel like it’s all right if I stand up here and mash potatoes for God if I want to.”

He gives the cue, and the band picks up, kicking into the gospel song “Look Where He Brought Me From.” As the band maintains a steady and upbeat rhythm, Fountain sings, shrieks, trembles, and dances with the music, transforming the outdoor music festival into something that sounds more like a backroad Southern revival. Even from a years-old YouTube clip, it’s clear that the Blind Boys of Alabama—a band that recorded its first record during the Truman administration—could still, as church folk say, wreck a crowd.

Until his death on Sunday, at age 88, Fountain was one of the last living connections to gospel’s Golden Age—an era characterized by rich harmonies and fiery performances, and a style of music with few remaining practitioners. It’s been 70 years since the Blind Boys of Alabama released their first single, but the group, albeit with a much different lineup, continues to record and tour. Though complications from diabetes kept Fountain from touring with the band for the last decade, he’d continued to be celebrated and admired as an early innovator of the “hard gospel” sound.

I met Fountain in September 2017, at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he lived his final days with Barbara, his wife of nearly 20 years. As we sat together in his living room, he told me stories about the band’s early days, their fight against obscurity, later rediscovery, and improbable success in recent years. He also filled me in on years of gossip, distrust, jealousy, and in-fighting over the band’s long history.

Once Fountain retired from touring in 2007, the lead singing role went to Jimmy Carter; and with Fountain’s death, Carter is now the sole surviving founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama. Fountain, Carter, George Scott, Johnny Fields, and Olice Thomas first met as young boys in Talladega, Alabama, at a segregated school for the deaf and blind. The Happyland Jubilee Singers, as the group originally called themselves, snuck away from school on weekends to perform at nearby soldier training camps; they soon dropped out of school altogether to tour. Carter, who was a couple of years younger than the other boys, stayed behind at the insistence of his mother.

After the success of a 1948 concert in Newark, New Jersey, that pitted the Happyland Jubilee Singers against Mississippi’s Jackson Harmoneers—another blind gospel quartet—the two groups changed their names, to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, respectively. They’d frequently perform together, exchange members, and battle each other onstage.

The Five Blind Boys of Alabama recorded their first single, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother but Mine,” that same year, employing the popular new “hard gospel” sound, and introducing listeners to the inimitable and bloodcurdling shout of Clarence Fountain. If jubilee groups like the Golden Gate Quartet or the Famous Blue Jay Singers had been distinguished for their pleasantly melodious singing, Fountain sang with all the fire and fury of a Pentecostal preacher, crouching low into a raspy growl before leaping into a shrieking falsetto.

Many gospel singers, in pursuit of financial stability and commercial success, would go mainstream in the ’60s—or “go rock and roll,” as they called it. The most well-known to do so is Sam Cooke, who left the gospel quartet the Soul Stirrers and went on to become a world-famous soul singer.

Though gospel music fell out of fashion and became less marketable with the arrival of soul, the Blind Boys of Alabama decided to stick with it. They lost money and sold fewer records, and might have languished the rest of their days on the gospel circuit, playing for small audiences at out-of-the-way black churches, if not for the Gospel at Colonus.

Premiering in 1983, the Lee Breuer–directed production was a musical interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, with an all-black cast, including Morgan Freeman as “the Messenger.” Setting the play inside a black Pentecostal church, Breuer made the unconventional choice to cast the Blind Boys of Alabama collectively as Oedipus, with the band’s guitar player, Sam Butler Jr., cast as “the Singer.” The play would go on to win two Obie Awards and receive Pulitzer and Tony nominations. “When the Gospel at Colonus came out, we stayed in Chicago for two months, and the people came, packed the house every night,” Fountain told me.

Taking advantage of this new market and their newfound popularity among white audiences, the Blind Boys toured the U.S. and Europe, booked festivals, and received a Grammy nomination, for their 1992 album Deep River. In 1994, the group was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Today’s Blind Boys of Alabama, of course, bear little resemblance to the group of young students who first sang together in Talladega. In 2005, at age 75, founding member George Scott passed away. He was replaced by Billy Bowers, and when Bowers died in 2013, he was replaced in turn by Paul Beasley. When Fountain retired from touring, the band was joined by Ben Moore, who’d lost his sight to glaucoma two decades ago. Blind since age 23, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie joined the group in 1989, first as drummer and road manager, then as a vocalist. Fountain’s absence left the Blind Boys in need of a new frontman. Considered the last founding member in the band, Jimmy Carter was the obvious choice.

Carter is now in his 86th year, and Charles Driebe, the group’s manager since 2000, has had to take the frontman’s future into consideration, though he told me, when we met last fall, that he isn’t concerned: The Blind Boys of Alabama is not one man, or five men; it is, in effect, a name. And a name, if managed well, can live on in perpetuity. “When you hear someone talk about the Blind Boys of Alabama,” Driebe said, “what comes to your mind is old-school, soulful, Southern gospel quartet singing, and I feel like these guys do it better than anybody in the world. So when Jimmy inevitably steps aside, I feel like we will still have that brand.”

Fountain, when I spoke with him last year, held a different opinion. “Let me explain to you, gospel music, with the Blind Boys, they’re living off what I done,” Fountain told me. “When I left, it left a big hole.” He explained to me his thoughts: that after Carter leaves, the Blind Boys might very well be done; that the group isn’t just a brand; that who is in the group matters.

“They’re living off the name,” Fountain said. “If I put out a record now, it’ll be a hit. ‘Cuz I ain’t put out a record in 10 years.” He continued: “Listen, I’m not blaming them. It ain’t their fault I got sick and that [dialysis] machine won’t let you go nowhere. It ain’t my fault. I’d be doing the same thing. But the Lord say no, so that’s what it is.”

Fountain never did put out another record. His last attempt to release one led to a complicated legal entanglement—over whether Fountain and a former guitarist for the Blind Boys, Sam Butler Jr., could use the group name—that nearly resulted in a lawsuit. That album, Stepping Up & Stepping Out, was eventually released in 2009, credited to Clarence Fountain, Sam Butler, and the Boys. When I spoke with Butler last year about the album complications, he told me: “Let me just say this. There’s been some things that we both feel wasn’t done right … All rights to the group should have followed Clarence, because Clarence is the last of the Mohicans.”

There’s a bittersweetness to the fact that Fountain passed away just as the Blind Boys finished out a tour in Europe that included Oslo, Zurich, and The Hague, where they were performing for audiences that have little history with gospel music. This summer the group will also perform at the annual Pickathon music festival, outside of Portland, Oregon—a setting far afield from where the Blind Boys started, but one that allows the group to broadcast its central message of hope and community to a new audience.

One of the last things I asked Clarence Fountain during our time together was if he’d felt any regret about not being able to tour with the group he’d cofounded. Did he feel like he’d been left behind by the others, or was he grateful for having made it as far as he had? He considered my question a moment before answering.

“Everybody has a point in life when your time is out,” he said, with a voice as calm and quiet as a prayer. “Everybody’s time is coming. But I thank Him for letting me live as long as I have.”