Clarence Fountain, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner who led the Blind Boys of Alabama for nearly 70 years, died June 3 in Baton Rouge. His death leaves Jimmy Carter as the gospel group’s sole original member.
Fountain, 88, and his wife, Barbara, moved to Baton Rouge in 1999 from Detroit. Although diabetes forced him to stop touring in 2007, Fountain continued recording with the Blind Boys.
“My theory is to do something good in the end,” he said of the group’s 2017 album, Almost Home. “After that, you can go on home and sit down.”
Between 2002 and 2009, the Blind Boys of Alabama won five Grammy Awards. In 2009, the Recording Academy presented the group with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“These men were raised as blind, African-American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years,” Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe said on the group’s website. “They were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living. They transcended all that.”
Fountain grew up in Selma. At 8, he enrolled at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind. In 1939, Fountain and five other students formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. In 1944, the group left school to be a touring gospel group.
The Happy Land Jubilee Singers pioneered the stirring gospel sound that featured a shouting, preaching lead vocalist. “You have to feel the spirit deep in your gut, and you have to know how to make someone else feel it,” Fountain explained.
The Happy Land Jubilee Singers became the Blind Boys of Alabama following an appearance in Newark, New Jersey. Promoters billed the concert as a battle between the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. “The name stuck and things took off for us,” Fountain said.
Fountain resisted offers to sing secular music. “I was happy singing real gospel,” he said. In 1983, the group experienced a revival with its appearance in The Gospel at Colonus. A gospel musical adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the production starred Fountain and Morgan Freeman. The Blind Boys later worked with Peter Gabriel, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Justin Vernon, Solomon Burke, Willie Nelson and many others.
“The majority of the time, when I was with the Blind Boys, everything you wanted, we had it,” Fountain said in 2017. “Only difference is, we was on the gospel side.”
Fountain is survived by his wife, Barbara. The funeral service at the Promised Land Baptist Church in Baton Rouge took place in June.