Blind Boys of Alabama Co-Founder Clarence Fountain Dies

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A founding member and longtime leader of the popular gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, Clarence Fountain, died of unspecified causes June 3 in Baton Rouge, La. He was 88. His death was confirmed by the group’s manager, Charles Driebe.

The group was formed in 1939 and remains active today. Fountain stopped touring in 2007 due to declining health but continued to record with the current lineup as recently as last year, when he appeared on their most recent album, Almost Home.

The only other surviving founding member still with the group today is singer Jimmy Carter.

The Blind Boys of Alabama have received numerous Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and an NEA National Heritage Fellowship. They have been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Clarence Fountain was born in Tyler, Ala., on Nov. 28, 1929. Blind from birth, he attended the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Ala., where he and several other blind youths (as well as one sighted member) formed the Happyland Jubilee Singers. They first performed professionally in 1944 and changed their name to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama in the late 1940s.

Related: Another gospel crossover great, Edwin Hawkins, died earlier this year

The group’s popularity rose during the 1950s but subsided during the ’60s and ’70s. They began releasing recordings in 1948and continued to record, for labels such as Specialty, Vee-Jay and others, even through the commercially lean decades. They also kept performing, both within the gospel circuit and for Civil Rights causes, including events featuring Marin Luther King.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Fountain left the group for about a decade but in the late ’70s the original members reunited and by the 1980s their popularity rose again as they were discovered by younger audiences. They appeared in a musical production of The Gospel at Colonus and began collaborating with stars of the rock, soul and pop genres. Their Grammy-nominated 1982 album Deep River was produced by Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MG’s) and a 2003 Christmas album featured contributions from Aaron Neville, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits and Mavis Staples.  A live concert DVD featured guest appearances by some of those artists as well as Chrissie Hynde.

Later recordings featured collaborations with members of Los Lobos as well as Billy Preston, Allen Toussaint, Susan Tedeschi and others. The 2009 Duets album included the then-current lineup joined by Lou Reed, Timothy B. Schmit, Bonnie Raitt and others. They appeared on Late Night with David Letterman with Reed. A 2010 appearance at the White House found the group performing alongside Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson and others, while a 2012 concert for Amnesty International saw them joined by Carly Simon, Levon Helm, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal and others.

Watch Susan Tedeschi with the Blind Boys of Alabama

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Watch the Blind Boys of Alabama sing a previously unreleased Bob Dylan song

Watch Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler sing “Do What the Lord Say Do”

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