Boys of Alabama - Interview with Jimmy Carter by Chet Cooper
Formed some six and a half decades ago, The Blind Boys of Alabama are
the Ironmen of the music industry. They predate Elvis, Little Richard
and Al Green, yet even in their 70s they are still at the top of
the gospel charts and have earned impressive three-peat
honors by winning consecutive Grammy Awards for the past three years.
In the past five years, they’ve recorded moving renditions
of songs by everyone from Tom Waits to Prince side by side with
their traditional material, and they have appeared as guests on
record and on stage with an equally diverse array of artists, from
Peter Gabriel to Ben Harper.
A huge gospel sensation back in the 1940s and 1950s, The Blind Boys—led
by founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott—brought
their music to secular audiences in 1983 when they appeared in the smash
hit musical The Gospel at Colonus, an Obie Award-winning off-Broadway
and Broadway production. This modern classic also featured Morgan Freeman
and was seen nationwide on PBS’ Great Performances.
The Boys caught the ears of more mainstream listeners with their Grammy-nominated
1992 album Deep River. That album ignited what has proven one
of the busiest and commercially successful periods of The Blind Boys’
In 2001, The Blind Boys moved firmly into the mainstream with the release
of Spirit of the Century, the first of three consecutive Grammy-winning
recordings. A triumph that blended gospel, blues, soul and folk, Spirit
of the Century won the 2001 Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel
Album. The Blind Boys’ version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down
in the Hole” became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO series
The Wire, and on the big screen The Blind Boys performed their
version of “Soldier” in the 2002 film The Fighting Temptations.
Further acclaim and another Grammy win for Best Traditional Soul Gospel
Album followed with 2002’s Higher Ground. In 2003, The
Blind Boys scored their third consecutive Grammy for Go Tell It On
the Mountain, a star-studded Christmas album.
In 2004, a session with the young chart-topping artist Ben Harper spilled
into a full-fledged album and another hit, “There Will Be a Light.”
Nominated for three Grammys, the album also saw The Blind Boys break The
Billboard Top 100 for the first time in the group’s history.
Honored at the 22nd Annual Media Access Awards, founding member of The
Blind Boys Jimmy Carter was on hand to receive the American Federation
of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) Disability Awareness Award. ABILITY
Magazine’s Chet Cooper spoke afterward with Carter.
Chet Cooper: Congratulations for being honored with the AFTRA Disability
Awareness Award at the Media Access Awards.
Jimmy Carter: Thank you. It did me good to see all the people, including
myself, out there overcoming our disabilities. I think it’s a great
thing they’re doing.
CC: How was The Blind Boys of Alabama formed?
JC: We were all going to a school for the blind in a little town in Alabama
called Talladega. All the kids from the state who were blind would go
to that school. We started off in a choir, from the choir we formed a
glee club, and from the glee club we became The Blind Boys of Alabama.
CC: Who came up with the name?
JC: In the beginning we weren’t The Blind Boys; we were called the
Hackerland Jubilee Singers. What happened was there was another blind
group from Mississippi called the Jackson Harmineers. We were both invited
to a battle of music, and the DJ, to promote his program, used the gimmick,
“The blind boys of Mississippi gonna battle the blind boys of Alabama.”
It stuck and that’s how we got the name The Blind Boys of Alabama.
CC: So the important question on everyone’s mind is who won the
JC: (laughs) The Blind Boys of Mississippi.
CC: Are they still performing?
JC: The real ones are not, but the group is still going on.
CC: How often do The Blind Boys of Alabama perform?
JC: I would say 150 to 200 days out of the year, give or take. It’s
kind of hectic, but we’re still hanging in there.
CC: And you have been keeping that up for how many years?
JC: I’ve been singing since 1944, June 10th.
CC: Are they all paying gigs?
JC: Oh yeah, all of them pay. We do some benefits now because we are also
involved in the American Diabetes Association. Three of us are diabetics.
CC: Do you yourself have diabetes?
JC: Yeah, I do. Type II.
CC: How is your health?
JC: I am doing pretty good, thank God.
CC: What are your memories of growing up in the South during the civil
JC: We knew there was a problem with the segregated stuff, but we were
never harassed. At that time we knew how far we could go and we stayed
where we were supposed to be.
CC: Do you think your blindness was a factor in your not experiencing
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Other articles in the Robert David Hall issue include Letter From The
Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Cell It Somewhere Else; Headlines:
MS, Alzheimer's, Flu Benefit & Tsunami Relief; Senator Harkin: Disability
Rights Abroad; Media Access: Pursuing Inclusion and Representation; Behavior-Based
Interviewing: Identifying Ability; Innovations: Balance Sport Wheelchairs;
Motor Vehicle Accidents: Frightening Statistics; Test Drive: Get Off Your
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