British pop star Peter Gabriel is known more for championing a diverse array of African and Asian artists on his Real World label than for any enthusiasm for Americana. But when Gabriel heard the new album by the Blind Boys of Alabama — a group of septuagenarian gospel singers that has been together since 1939 — it was love at first listen.
Gabriel was instantly moved by the combination of old-time gospel soul and darkly atmospheric blues. He immediately offered to license the record, “Spirit Of The Century,” which will be released via Real World April 9 in Europe and April 24 in the U.S. “For us it was a no-brainer,” Gabriel said from his London office. “As soon as we heard the music, we were hooked.”
Against a sparse but potent musical backdrop created by a studio band of roots-music heroes — guitarist John Hammond, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, and the rhythm section from Richard Thompson’s touring band — the Blind Boys adapt their traditional jubilee-style harmonies to songs by contemporary writers like Tom Waits, Ben Harper, and Mick Jagger/Keith Richards. They also reinvent some classic spirituals, as with their haunting version of “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
While the Blind Boys don’t compromise their lifelong commitment to a Christian message, Real World hopes to maximize the record’s crossover potential — which may be considerable, given the recent success of American roots and gospel music on the gold-certified Mercury soundtrack to the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (which is currently No. 14 on The Billboard 200 and No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart).
“Spirit Of The Century” may be to gospel what Buena Vista Social Club (with U.S. sales of 1.2 million, according to SoundScan) was to Cuban music. At least that’s what Chris Goldsmith of San Francisco’s Rosebud Agency hopes. Goldsmith, the Blind Boys’ longtime booking agent, conceived the project with producer John Chelew and financed the recording before it was shopped to various labels.
“To me, ‘Spirit Of The Century’ is almost a world-music record, which is why Real World is a great label for this to be on,” Goldsmith says. “I see parallels between the Blind Boys and people like the Buena Vista Social Club, in that they’re legendary performers who have sort of been in the background and are now being brought to the forefront. And I think they have something to offer everybody, even people who aren’t necessarily into that genre.”
Gabriel agrees, saying that gospel music is “not my normal diet, and I’m not a practicing Christian in that way. But to me, when people sing from their souls, it really resonates. I think one of the attractions with a lot of African music is that it combines the spiritual content with a more physical, passionate form. And this music [on ‘Spirit of the Century’] definitely does that. I think the [Christian] message is clearly important to them, and because of that, it becomes important to me and to the listener.”
Clarence Fountain, George Scott, and Jimmy Carter — the core members of the Blind Boys — first started singing together at the Talladega Institute For The Blind in Alabama. In the ensuing decades, they followed a hardscrabble path that included tragedy (such as the accidental shooting death of founding member Velma Taylor in 1947) and career conflict (Fountain left the group to pursue a solo career for much of the ’70s). Along the way, the Blind Boys recorded nearly two-dozen albums for numerous labels and became one of the nation’s top gospel acts, thanks to constant touring and a rousing live show. A turn off-Broadway in the 1994 Obie-winning “Gospel At Colonus” brought the group to an even wider audience.
The idea for “Spirit Of The Century” sprang from a 1998 package tour on which the Blind Boys and Hammond performed “Motherless Child” together. “It was just an amazing musical moment,” Goldsmith recalls. “From there, I felt like that intersection of spiritual music — blues and gospel — needed to be explored further.” He approached Chelew, who had teamed the Blind Boys with Bonnie Raitt on the 1994 Richard Thompson tribute album “Beat The Retreat.”
Chelew, whose first producing credit was John Hiatt’s acclaimed 1987 album “Bring The Family,” sought to introduce a sense of Southern gothic mystery that he felt was lacking in the Blind Boys’ previous albums. He envisioned a record “that could reunite them with Delta blues and the real scary gospel background-that ghostly aura that original gospel has. My mission was to bring the sound of the Blind Boys up to the current moment by going back into their past.”
The Blind Boys have been singing “Spirit Of The Century” numbers like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Good Religion,” and “Motherless Child” since the 1940s. They also interpret four songs with a gospel slant by high-profile rock’n’roll writers: Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” from his album “Bone Machine,” and “Way Down in the Hole,” from his “Frank’s Wild Years”; Harper’s “Give A Man A Home,” from “Fight For Your Mind”; and, perhaps most remarkable, the Rolling Stones’ “Just Wanna See His Face,” from their 1972 classic “Exile On Main Street.”
Some of the contemporary material made the singers suspicious. “They wanted to know the reason for every song,” Chelew says. Before recording Harper’s “Give A Man A Home,” one of the singers said, “What are you talking about here, “Give a man a home?’ Is someone going to give me a home?” Chelew recounts. “We had a big discussion about the meaning in the studio lounge. Then someone else said, “I see. A man is saying he could have a fine house but is still homeless in his soul.’ I said, “Bingo!’ And we went and did the track.”
The Blind Boys’ “skepticism was one of the linchpins of the whole thing,” Chelew says. “They wouldn’t go ahead with anything until they were really feeling it.” Goldsmith, who also participated in the recording, adds, “It was a leap of faith — that’s the theme of the record. We almost called it that.”
“I can’t stress enough how important it is that the album was funded privately,” Chelew notes. “It gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted without A&R executives who have too much time on their hands coming by to ‘help.'”
Goldsmith says he approached half a dozen labels with the project without success. Then the bass player from the recording, Danny Thompson, who has worked on several Real World projects, provided the entree to Gabriel’s label.
“The Spirit Of The Century” band will be reassembled for two shows on May 8 at New York’s Bottom Line, with dates perhaps to follow in Los Angeles. TV appearances also are in the works.
Meanwhile, the Blind Boys will continue touring with their regular band, which includes singer/guitarist Joey Williams (who also appears on “Spirit Of The Century”) and drummer Ricky McKinnie. The group’s youth crossover appeal was highlighted by a recent invitation to open for hot jam band the String Cheese Incident in Boulder, Colo.
Fountain, sitting backstage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., before a February performance, told Billboard that the Blind Boys will keep working as hard as ever and pray that the high expectations of those around them prove well founded. “My theory has always been just do what we can while we can. And in return, the Lord will make a way.”