For Clarence Fountain — the 70-something years–young leader of The Blind Boys of Alabama — his earliest memories of Christmas are among the most vivid.
“I must’ve been about three or four years old, living with my family in Tyler, Alabama, in Dallas County. We were out in the country and didn’t get to town but once in a while.
“Christmas was the one day that us kids all got some candy and some apples and oranges. Didn’t have anything else–we were too poor to buy anything else. But I knew it was Christmas, because that was the only time I got those things all at the same time–-the candy and the apples and the oranges.”
Later, when Fountain entered the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind at Talladega, “they had a big male chorus and we always learned Christmas songs like ‘Silent Night.’ You know, the Blind Boys have always wanted to cut a Christmas album. We just never got it together before.”
For Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama, the wait is over. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is the first holiday theme album in the group’s 60-year history, as well as their third release for Real World Records. This 12-song collection is a work of both comforting familiarity and startling innovation, with genre-crossing guest vocal appearances by Solomon Burke, George Clinton, Michael Franti, Chrissie Hynde, Shelby Lynne, Les McCann, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, and Tom Waits. There are special instrumental guest performances by Richard Thompson (electric guitar) and Robert Randolph (pedal steel guitar) in addition to a superb studio band, led by organist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame) with jump-blues guitar ace Duke Robillard and the peerless rhythm section of Danny Thompson (double bass) and Michael Jerome (drums).
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is produced by John Chelew, producer of the Blind Boys’ two previous Grammy Award-winning albums: Spirit of the Century (2001) and Higher Ground (2002). A percentage of the royalties from the new disc (to be released September 16, 2003) will be donated to the American Diabetes Association. During the ADA’s national convention in June 2003, the Blind Boys of Alabama (three of whose members are diabetic) initiated a major fund-raising campaign with a donation of $5,000 to the organization.
ABOUT THE ALBUM
Here are some selected tracks from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, including comments by the guest performers:
“I Pray On Christmas” with Solomon Burke
Soul music legend Solomon Burke reaches into his potent upper range on this Harry Connick, Jr. composition, and his performance is a vivid reminder of his own deep roots in urban gospel.
“I remember him from when he was a boy preacher in the Fifties,” recalls Clarence Fountain. “He had a church in Philadelphia–and all the time he was singing rock and roll, he was pastoring the church!”
Solomon Burke, for his part, has “always idolized the Blind Boys. They have been around for more than 60 years and still, here they are: the hottest, workin’, movin’, groovin’, jumpin’, singin’, shoutin’ gospel quartet in America–I’d say in the world!”
“Go Tell It On The Mountain” with Tom Waits
The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter meets the gospel tradition on a timeless spiritual. The bluesy, minor-key arrangement recalls the Blind Boys’ earlier transformation of “Amazing Grace.”
John Chelew (producer): “I got a bunch of versions of ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’, but they were all in a major key and all a little soft. So I sat at the nine-foot Steinway at Capitol and just put the song to minor chords. So we got this tougher, more mournful chord structure that inspired the harmonies you hear–and they’re really weird harmonies, almost like doo-wop.”
“In The Bleak Midwinter” with Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson
Although largely unfamiliar to US audiences, this song is a hallowed British Christmas standard. The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde worked for two days to capture the perfect vocal take. The result ranks with her finest ballad performances, complemented by Richard Thompson’s ringing electric guitar solo.
“Joy To the World” with Aaron Neville
On a superb a cappella version of this Yuletide hymn, recorded live in a New Orleans studio, Aaron Neville sings delicate filigrees of countermelody in and around the Blind Boys’ chorale.
“I was listening to the Blind Boys back in the Fifties,” says Aaron. “My brothers and I used to walk down the street harmonizing, trying to sound like the Blind Boys. Their singing still sends chills down my spine. They’ve got that old soul!”
“Born In Bethlehem” with Mavis Staples
This (literally) breathtaking circular chant-song finds Mavis Staples in typically exuberant form, and no wonder: “That song was based on the version that the Staples Singers recorded in 1959 for our Christmas album The 25th Day of December” she explains. “Pops [father Roebuck “Pops” Staples] came up with all these old songs, and ‘Born in Bethlehem’ was my favorite of them all.”
“I’ve known the Blind Boys since I was a shorty. They would often perform at the DuSable High School auditorium in Chicago. It would be a big package show that might include the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May, the Swanee Quintet or the Dixie Hummingbirds. Clarence Fountain would bend his knees and do a little strut we called the Camel Walk, and the audience would just go wild!”
“Away In A Manger” with George Clinton and Robert Randolph
A tender seasonal hymn is recast as a mischievously subversive 12-bar blues, with George Scott’s lead vocal intertwined with the muttering, chuckling, yowling voice of Parliament/Funkadelic founder George Clinton. Meanwhile, Robert Randolph applies some wicked wah-wah to his pedal steel guitar solo.
Randolph says he sometimes wonders: “Was there something in the food that made people able to sing like George Scott, back in the day? Because that is what’s so cool about being affiliated with the Blind Boys: Their music gives you a feeling you just can’t get from anyone else.”
“White Christmas” with Les McCann
Les McCann’s arrangement completely transforms this familiar chestnut, from his scat-sung intro to his myriad chord substitutions on piano.
John Chelew: “Les’ manager told us that the stroke he suffered in 1995 had effected some of his playing but not all of it. But when he sat at the piano and started playing, I said: ‘Man, nothing’s missing here!’
“Les created an arrangement that virtually rewrote the song. It’s so unusual, such a departure from any previous version, that it took the Blind Boys two days to learn how to sing it.”
ABOUT THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
The Blind Boys of Alabama have spread the spirit and energy of pure soul gospel music for over 60 years, ever since the first version of the group formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. Today, founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott are joined by more recent arrivals Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie, Bobby Butler, and Tracy Pierce on a mission to expand the audience for traditional soul-gospel singing while incorporating contemporary songs and innovative arrangements into their hallowed style.
The group toiled for more than 40 years on the traditional gospel circuit. But in 1983, their career reached a turning point with their crucial role in The Gospel At Colonnus, the smash hit musical drama created by Bob Telson and Lee Breuer. This Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway success, coupled with their appearance on two original soundtrack albums (in 1984 and 1988), brought the Blind Boys’ timeless sound to an enthusiastic new audience.
The 1992 album Deep River — produced by Booker T. Jones and featuring a transcendent version of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You” — earned the Blind Boys their first Grammy Award nomination. It was, as their executive producer and long-time booking agent Chris Goldsmith notes, “the first time the Blind Boys ventured into ‘gospelizing’ relevant contemporary songs that weren’t traditional soul-gospel songs.” In 1995, the Blind Boys released the roof-raising live album I Brought Him With Me, followed (in 1997) by Holding On, an experiment in funked-up contemporary gospel.
The group did not record again until 2001, when Chris Goldsmith (who “just couldn’t take it anymore”) decided to self-finance the Blind Boys album he’d been hearing in his head for years. “I saw a show with [blues singer/guitarist] John Hammond and the Blind Boys performing together that was an epiphany for me. Around the same time, John Chelew came by to talk about his ideas for a Blind Boys album.”
The result was the Blind Boys’ Real World label debut, Spirit of the Century — a set of hot-wired traditional gospel and carefully chosen contemporary songs that became the group’s best-selling album to date and won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. One track, a version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series “The Wire.” (Throughout their 2003 touring season, the Allman Brothers Band played this cut over their PA system each night just before hitting the stage.)
Higher Ground — a spiritual excavation into the soul music tradition — earned the group its second consecutive Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Backed by Robert Randolph and his Family Band (as well as Ben Harper, on several tracks), the Blind Boys offered masterful interpretations of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” the Stevie Wonder-penned title tune, and even a touch of Funkadelic (“Me and My Folks”). During the 34th annual Dove Awards sponsored by the Gospel Music Association, the Blind Boys of Alabama were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and presented with the Dove Award for Higher Ground as the Best Traditional Gospel Album.
During the 2003 holiday season, the Blind Boys will undertake a special series of Christmas concerts featuring songs from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN with guest appearances by Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, John Medeski, and others to be announced.
For Clarence Fountain, there’s one thing that could surpass the pleasure of those oranges and apples and candy of his childhood. “It took us a long time to get around to making a Christmas CD, but GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is the best Christmas album you’ll hear this year. If this CD sells, it will be the best Christmas present I ever had. So everyone should buy a copy before December 25th!”