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.