Written Exclusively for Blues Revue
by Joseph Jordan
The House of Blues ever expanding entertainment agenda grew considerably last month when that already sizable conglomerate chose as its new record label's premiere effort a rollicking gospel album by one of the genres most famous groups. I'm sure that by choosing a gospel recording as its initial release, the executives at HOB Music Company are hoping for a Divine kick-start to their new endeavor.
I Brought Him With Me is the name of that first recording and it is a winner by any standards. The television, radio and print exposure that the House of Blues empire can extend to the albums creators, The Blind Boys of Alabama, will provide an unprecedented opportunity to that legendary gospel group's success over their long career.
House of Blues will be marketed by Private Music and distributed nationally by recording giant BMG. The label's trademarked slogan, "Help Ever - Hurt Never" will meet the new recording company's philosophy of "celebrating the blues culture by identifying, cultivating and signing new blues influenced artists, as well as traditional blues projects."
HOB has its own recording studios in Memphis, a studio wizard in producer-engineer David Z, and they've already signed artists Jimmy Rip, The Gales Brothers, Paul Black and the Flip Kings, John Mooney and former Michael Jackson guitarist, Becky Barksdale to contracts. Of special interest to blues fans will be a soon-to-be-released 27-cut, 2-CD package of previously unavailable (domestically) songs by the late, great Albert King.
In signing the Blind Boys of Alabama, HOB has definitely chosen a group with staying power. Incredibly, the group has been making music and traveling their heavenly highway together for well over 50-years. They have toured the world several times over bringing their message of "Hope through Jesus" to literally millions of listeners.
The Blind Boys vital presence helps them in their single-minded purpose to bring listeners to the Lord. Due to their position as elder statesmen of African-American gospel performers, their cultural roots and traditional values extend probably as far back as one can hear within the genre. They have been singing together since the great depression. Their perseverance is staggering.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, formerly known as the Five Blind Boys, first recording was released 47-years ago and yet their first major label release was last year in the Grammy-nominated Deep River on Elektra Nonesuch. That album brought them more critical and audience acclaim than they had experienced in the last half-century. "It's was in us all the time to do what we do but we just didn't have the folks to prove it to, and that makes a great big difference," the ensemble remarks.
The group's Atlanta-based leader and lead-singer is Clarence Fountain, a friendly, candid, and gravel-voiced man who is a dedicated entertainer and a tireless messenger of the Lord's word. He is a story-teller par excellence and can tell as much, if not more, about his audiences than many sighted performers.
Although "three or four labels" were competing for the Blind Boys services, the group went with the new HOB label. "I think (signing with House of Blues Music Company) is going to be all right. I think it's going to be the best thing we've ever done," Fountain says. They will do at least one more album for their new label.
Much more at home singing in a church than in a trendy night-spot, The Blind Boys nevertheless recorded their new CD, their first ever live release, over three nights in January of this year at the massively successful restaurant/music venue chain-outlet, the House of Blues in Los Angeles, the City of the Angels. It was recorded during Martin Luther King festivities that were occurring in L.A. and nationwide.
"I Brought Him With Me" was co-produced by Fountain and his group's L.A.-based manager, Kevin Morrow, who also happens to manage one of the blues world's most respected artists, multi-Handy Award winner and white urban-blues pioneers, Charlie Musselwhite.
The recording features 14-tracks, a fever-pitched audience and an extremely live sound that must have scared several sinners on the Sunset Strip and awakened the dead in West Hollywood. This recording also happens to be the first full-length concert broadcast on the Internet in that medium's fairly short history.
A mixture of mostly gospel cover tunes and a few originals or standards re-arranged by Fountain, "I Brought Him With Me" is at times uneven. However, overall, the recording does posses a flow and energy that even at 60-minutes plus, the listener will not want either the songs or the feeling imbued to end.
The song selections contain a few surprises. Pete Seeger's marvelous song of hope and wishes, "If I Had A Hammer," is provided with a rousing arrangement by Fountain and the group. A long-time favorite songwriter of Fountain's, Brook Benton, gets a tribute with the recording's closing song, "Looking Back." Fountain gets topical with his message of drug abstinence in his original composition, "No Dope." And you might get a kick out of Fountain's "Praying Time" of which the melody is a straight lift from the Ray Charles version of "Cryin' Time Again." The Blind Boys a cappella ballad, "Listen to the Lambs," is a stirring example of vocal dynamics and shows how intricately woven the group's harmonies are.
The cuts on "I Brought Him With Me" vary from ballads to up-tempo jubilees and the energy and affection the crowd and the Blind Boys exchanged is obvious upon first listen. Fountain believes the next time his group records though, it should be in the church, or "the black market," as he calls it, where he believes his group's particular style of music shines its brightest.
"I want to cut it the way I want to cut it and not be told what to do." "I know how to work the churches. I've been doing it all my life." Fountain also feels that even with blues and R&B greats Koko Taylor ("Do Lord") and Solomon Burke (Looking Back") each guesting on one cut each, he would prefer next time to keep the recording strictly within the group.
"I'm going to really cut this one (the next album) right," Fountain says. "I'm going into the studio, and sit down and get my head screwed on right and do it just like it's supposed to be (done.)"
Gospel music has always been the spiritual sibling to it's evil twin-brother, the blues. The chord structures are the same, the plaintive wails, agonized shouts and feeling of joyous release are more than similar. They are each other's road not taken. Only the names have changed to protect the non-secular.
Probably the most famous gospel songwriter of all time, Thomas Dorsey, (Georgia Tom,) started out as a honky-tonk, piano-playing, cathouse blues singer until he found his salvation in the Lord. It's kind of funny, but somewhat of a standing truism that the main difference between gospel and the blues is that in gospel music, practitioners are singing, "Oh Lordy, Lord," while blues vocalists are singing, "Oh baby, baby."
As with most gospel music heard live, the listener does not have to be a true believer to enjoy it fully. As characteristic of the best of gospel, its rhythms, beats and musical insistence is infectious. It is almost impossible not to physically move when you hear it. And when gospel is sung by masters of the genre like the Blind Boys, it becomes a religious experience even for a secular audience. The group truly transcends the religious boundaries the lyrics of gospel imply.
The Blind Boys formed in the mid-thirties while they were classmates at Talladega, Alabama's Institute for the Deaf and Blind. They've lost beloved colleagues during that long road from poverty and complete obscurity to major label stardom and popular adulation, but all of them are determined to keep on that straight and narrow gospel road.
The Blind Boys recorded for a number of labels over the years, including VeeJay and Savoy. One of Fountain's most beloved periods was when he recorded for Art Rupe's Specialty label in the mid-50s. "But we were only singing to the black audience and that's all," Fountain laments. Many of the group's vinyl albums recorded during that period, when Fountain said, "we were young and in good voice and had energy to burn," are still available, however you might have to search Christian shops as well as used record stores before you track some down.
Fountain has guided his group to stints behind prison walls, stirring hell-fire among inmates; been presented with a National Endowment for the Art's Heritage Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement by First Lady Hillary Clinton; and catapulted to national acclaim on the Broadway stage in the group's appearance in the Obie Award-winning musical of 1988, "The Gospel at Colonus." That play, says Fountain, is the group's "proudest professional memory." "That's the best thing that ever happened to the Blind Boys as a whole."
The Blind Boys keep up a exhausting but personally-rewarding schedule of over 250-live performances a year. Besides club and concert dates and blues festivals, they even play alternative fests such as World of Music and Dance (WOMAD.) They've enjoyed headliner status at such prestigious musical events as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and at Montreaux Jazz Festival.
Fountain remarks, "I like to play blues festivals because everybody else (on the bill) is singing the blues and we're singing gospel and that makes it a big turnaround. It makes it real good because the blues only go one way, they go fast, slow and in-between. Gospel go fast and have more energy and more power and more get up. So I love to do that. The audience goes hog wild and we go hog wild right along with them." We sing secular tunes (in concert), but not too secular. Nothing though about my baby and my darling, my honey and all that or any blues songs. We don't do that."
The Blind Boys' musical endeavors have been hailed by everyone from CNN to Rolling Stone and Musician to Folk Roots and England's Q magazine. Their long years of touring steadily through secular non-recognition is coming rapidly to an end. They've enjoyed national television exposure on the Turner Broadcast System's weekly program, "Live From The House Of Blues" hosted by that shadowy blues aficionado Elwood (Dan Ackroyd) Blues and the cute-as-a-button Katie Wagner.
Fountain is adamant when he says, "If you really want to feel good, come see the Blind Boys. And if you've got God in you, and I know you have because everybody that's born has God in him, we'll try to bring that side of you out."
Although asked repeatedly over the years to sing pop or blues, the group steadfastly refused to leave their religious message behind. Their service to Jesus required them to keep their gospel chops alive. Fountain theorizes, "Blues, classical, and jazz have had their day, now it's time for gospel to have its day." "I knew that our group would hit the jackpot someday and that day has come." Fountain sees his group "singing beyond the year 2000." By the grace of God, he and the Blind Boys will do just that.