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The Blind Boys of Alabama are a gospel music group from Alabama that first formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939.
Although the Blind Boys of Alabama have been singing gospel music for more than five decades, it's only recently that the group has had the benefit of a major record company behind them. Led by founding member Clarence Fountain, the rest of the group currently consists of Eric McKinney, George Scott, Caleb Butler, Johnny Field, Jimmy Carter, Joey Williams, Donald Dillion and Aubrey Blount.
From their inception in the 1930s, when all were boys, the group's members turned their blindness into their chief selling point, and in fact, all members of the group except one are blind. They began singing when all were students at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Alabama, but didn't begin recording until 1948. As a youth, Fountain heard the legendary Golden Gate Quartet on the radio; the early Five Blind Boys of Alabama took their musical cues from that group. The group began singing professionally as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, and for years lived a day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar existence touring the South.
Since 1948, they've recorded for a variety of small record companies, and had gospel music hits in the 1950s with "Oh, Lord Stand By Me" and "I Can See Everybody's Mother But I Can't See Mine." In 1950, after the death of one of their members, the group renamed themselves simply the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Fountain's group recorded first for the Newark-based Coleman Records label. Between 1953 and 1957, the group recorded for Art Rupe's California-based Specialty label. In the 1960s, the group's hard-driving gospel sounds were imitated by people like Bobby "Blue" Bland and Marvin Gaye. The group recorded extensively for the Vee Jay label from 1963 to 1965. In 1969, Fountain left the group for a decade to try to make it on his own, and the group re-formed with all the original members in the late 1970s.
They didn't enjoy widespread success until 1988, when they starred in an Obie Award-winning Broadway show. According to Fountain, the group's high point was being on Broadway for 15 weeks with the musical Gospel at Colonus. The musical opened up new avenues for bookings to the group, and they began touring theaters and larger churches in the early 1990s, embarking on their first European tours as well. The group was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1994. In 1994 and 1995, the group played festivals including the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Beale Street Music Festival and the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Mid-1990s television appearances included Black Entertainment Television's On Jazz, and even a cameo on Beverly Hills, 90210.
As of 2008, they are still performing, including a number of the original members. Releases by the group in recent years have been favorites at the Grammy Awards — they have won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album every year since 2002. The Blind Boys of Alabama were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2002. Their cover of the Tom Waits song "Way Down In The Hole" was featured as the opening theme for season one of HBO's The Wire. In 2008 they released Down in New Orleans, on which they were accompanied by such Crescent City legends as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint.