Looking back over the history of music, you’d be hard-pressed to name a group with more longevity than celebrated gospel act Blind Boys of Alabama. We’re talking nearly 80 years of true gospel music, from the segregated world of the late 1930s, the navigation of evolving tastes during the 1960s, the advent of popular R&B, soul and rock music and the eventual infiltration of modern popular culture. Blind Boys’ music was even featured during the opening credits from season one of HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire (it was a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole”) and they’ve taken home multiple Grammy wins—good Lord, that’s staying power.
The true magic, however, is in Blind Boys' ability to reach out beyond the faithful flock and into the secular world, winning fans both religious and not. But to hear founding member Jimmy Carter tell it, he's never worked a day in his life. Given Carter's status as living legend, it's a nerve-wracking phone call to make, but the man is nothing if not ebulliently disarming. That probably comes easy if you love what you do, though. "I don't consider this a job," Carter tells me. "I count it as a privilege, and I think that I was called by God to this."
Of course, Carter, now 87, never imagined he'd be continuing his musical mission so many years later. With meager beginnings as children at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, the Boys set out with a simple ideal: to spread their love of God. "We weren't thinking about nothing except singing gospel; we weren't looking for no Grammys and we weren't looking for no accolades," Carter says. "But we're still here, and we're going to be here until … until …"
And they've kept the faith. According to Carter, the Blind Boys, now consisting of seven members (three singers and four instrumetalists), have witnessed plenty of defectors who turned to secular music over the years, but they were never in it for the money or the material. "What we've seen is many gospel singers who decided to go the other way, and that's all right. I don't got nothing against that," he says. "We were just determined that we were going to do it, no matter how rough the way was."
This determination has led to dozens of full-length releases, myriad contributions to other artists' recordings and a healthy number of collaborative projects with heavyweights like Ben Harper, Peter Gabriel and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Blind Boys also picked up two more Grammy nominations this year for Best Roots Gospel Album and Best American Roots Performance, and Carter says they're in talks to work with Amazon.com on an album to be released early next year. That's an awful lot of output, especially for a group with so many decades under their belt. "You just depend on God and you go forward," Carter says.
Should this pique your interest, Blind Boys of Alabama perform on Tuesday Dec. 20 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Says Carter, "We have an annual Christmas concert that we do, and this time we're bringing it to your neck of the woods, so you're going to hear traditional gospel music along with some of that Christmas music."
So is there some key to their enduring success? How has this group kept it going for so long and through so many changing musical trends? "Well, you've gotta get you a good lifestyle and you've gotta rest," Carter says. "That's important. And—and this is not a brag—you've gotta admit, those brown boys sure can sing, though." Amen.
Blind Boys of Alabama: Talkin' Christmas
7:30 pm Tuesday Dec. 20. $34-$52.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St.,