Playing It by Ear
Let's begin with one impressive fact: The Blind Boys of Alabama have been performing for 69 years. Formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, this soul/gospel group has only continued to be a powerhouse in the genre. And yes, three of the vocalists and the drummer are blind. But, of course, sight is not what's needed to create — or enjoy — beautiful music. The full range of vocalization the group members bring to their arsenal of vintage spiritual, gospel, R&B, soul, semi-jazz, and contemporary hymnals has brought them cross-genre appeal and a growing fan base, as well as a four-year string of Grammy awards.
Original members Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter are joined by Ben Moore and Bishop Bowers (who replaced founder George Scott, who passed away in 2005) on vocals. The rhythm section is helmed by Eric McKinnie on drums and Tracy Pierce on bass, with Joey Williams and Caleb Butler on lead and rhythm guitars, respectively. Let's skip the musical jargon concerning vocals and tell it how it is: These guys have enough skill that their regular inflections double as instrumentation, and each man stands grandly on his own when chasing notes. Plus they create a mellifluous gel when harmonizing.
It's a shame they are overshadowed in the mainstream (as well as sometimes considered a gimmick act), but by the same token, there's something special in owning one of their albums. No need to be a snob about it, though, because there's also a quiet dignity to the history the group has lived: segregation, the civil rights movement, rock and roll, consumer indifference, hip-hop, and so on.
Now the Blind Boys are on a world tour promoting their new album, Down in New Orleans. Joining them for the Miami stop is Mavis Staples, whose powerful voice grew in the Sixties with her family act, the Staples Singers. Trained by her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Mavis brings a feminine angle to the genre, as well as more than 40 years' worth of material.
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