Clarence Fountain, founding member and longtime leader of the iconic gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama died on Sunday 3 June in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 88.
With Fountain at the helm, the Blind Boys rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacles of musical achievement – winning multiple Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, as well as being inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and performing at the White House.
The four records the group released on Real World Records between 2001 and 2005 (Spirit of the Century, Higher Ground, Go Tell It On The Mountain and Atom Bomb) were some of the most successful albums in the label’s history both critically and commercially.
The group’s association with the label led them to contribute vocals to Peter Gabriel’s album UP and saw them tour the world with the Growing Up Tour:
“One of the highlights of the Growing Up Tour was when the Blind Boys were revealed coming up on a riser in the middle of the stage in ‘Sky Blue’ – it would always bring the house down. They all had these extraordinarily rich voices, authentic voices you knew had been really lived in. They always fed off each other and the audience.
They were always warm and generous travelling companions and a pleasure to hang out with. Despite a very wide range of ailments (and medicines), the Blind Boys always delivered, giving 100% every night.
Clarence, was the leader of the band and always had a certain wisdom about him. We will miss him and those inspiring performances”
– Peter Gabriel
From their first release in 1948 Fountain and the Blind Boys released music across seven decades and recorded with an astounding array of artists, including Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, k.d.lang, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Susan Tedeschi, Aaron Neville and Mavis Staples.
Due to declining health brought on by complications of diabetes, Fountain stopped touring with the band in 2007 but continued to record with them when able. In 2017, Fountain sang on the Blind Boys’ latest album, Almost Home. That album grew out of the recognition that the band’s original lineup was down to just two remaining survivors: long-time group leader Fountain and current leader Jimmy Carter.
“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,” said Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe. “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, and we wanted to find a way to capture their experiences in songs.”
The Almost Home album opener, the captivating ‘Stay On The Gospel Side’, traces Fountain’s roots all the way back to childhood and recounts his insistence on remaining true to his gospel origins. According to Fountain, “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.”
Fountain is survived by his wife, Barbara.