Clarence Fountain, founding member and longtime leader of the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, died Sunday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the age of 88.
The Blind Boys of Alabama confirmed Fountain’s death in a statement on the group’s website. No cause of death was provided, but the group’s manager said Fountain entered a Baton Rouge hospital on Friday.
Born in 1929 in Tyler, Alabama, Fountain was enrolled at the age of eight into the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind. While singing in the school’s choir, Fountain and five friends formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. That group toured throughout the Forties and recorded the 1948 hit “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine” before changing their name to the Blind Boys of Alabama – coined by a Newark, New Jersey concert promoter – at the turn of the decade.
“These men were both raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living,” Blind Boys of Alabama manager Charles Driebe said in the statement of Fountain and Jimmy Carter, the group’s lone surviving founding member. “But they transcended all that. The arc of their lives and of the band reflects the arc of a lot of changes in American society.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama would later perform at benefits for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Despite being one of the more famed black gospel groups during the Fifties, the Blind Boys of Alabama’s popularity waned in the late Sixties and Seventies as secular soul music emerged; Fountain was steadfast in his dedication to gospel music.
“There was no way we were going to go pop or rock,” Fountain said. “Who needed it? Our bellies were full, we had no headaches, we were happy. At least I was happy, singing real gospel.”
In 1983, the Fountain-led Blind Boys of Alabama staged an Off-Broadway production of Gospel at Colonus, which reimagined the Sophocles’ Greek tragedy in a Pentecostal church. The production won two Obie Awards and received nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards. In the Nineties, the group softened their stance on secular music beginning with 1992’s Booker T. Jones-produced Deep River.
Since 2002, The Blind Boys of Alabama have won five Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Gospel Album, most recently for 2009’s Down in New Orleans. The group was also given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have also performed at the White House for three presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) and have collaborated with artists like Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Lou Reed, Mavis Staples and Bon Iver, who produced an album by the group.
Fountain’s declining health, brought on by complications of diabetes, prevented the singer from touring with the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2007, but he continued to record with the group, including their 2017 album Almost Home.
Driebe quoted Fountain as saying, “My theory is do something good in the end and that will close out your longevity. After that, you can go on home and sit down.”