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As THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA celebrate their many years of continuous harmonizing, it’s a fitting time to ponder their amazing resilience. What has kept them going for so long, and still sounding so great? Rock-solid religious faith certainly helps account for their vibrant longevity. So does their unshakeable conviction that they were put here for the express purpose of singing. But an equally important factor, which is not always shared by their peers, is the Blind Boys’ open-mindedness. Old-time Gospel music circles are often marked by rigid conservatism and the dismissal of popular music as a worldly temptation of the Devil. The Blind Boys, by contrast, shun worldliness yet eagerly embrace the world, bringing spiritual music to secular audiences in order to spread their message.
As a result, the group has formed fast friendships with an impressive array of musicians – venerable colleagues and youthful protégés alike – who span several generations and a wealth of genres. Many of these major artists have asked the Blind Boys to guest on their projects; their album Duets (released October 2009) documents the 20-year history of this rich, eclectic, and cohesive interaction. The Blind Boys are sought for their general wisdom, specific input, and intangibly special presence; it’s important to note that The Blind Boys don’t accept every invitation. The lyrical content has to be right – not necessarily religious, per se, but spiritual nonetheless. They also have to feel the song and believe that they can put their own stamp on it. Once those criteria are met, the Blind Boys of Alabama are “in,” bringing enthusiasm, expertise, and soulful commitment.
This outstanding anthology gathers fourteen such diverse collaborations. It is called Duets because, while many songs find the Blind Boys singing backing harmonies, they do so as revered elders and guest stars rather than studio musicians for hire. Four of the songs come from Grammy-winning albums, three tracks are from Grammy-nominated releases, and accolades for the three previously unreleased songs are apt to follow. It is rare indeed that a guest vocal group has added such gravitas to so many important recordings.
It’s also rare for such an elderly, historic group to have come so far and still straddle modern music’s cutting edge. When the group first started singing in Alabama in 1939, few people would have ever envisioned the Blind Boys performing beyond a small circuit of Southern, black-community churches. By the 1980s, however, the group’s breakthrough appearance in an Obie-winning musical – The Gospel At Colonus, starring Morgan Freeman – led to a diversified popularity far beyond the Blind Boys’ original core following.
Since then, the Blind Boys have released or reissued nearly 30 albums, five of which – Down In New Orleans, Go Tell It On The Mountain, Higher Ground, Spirit of the Century, and There Will Be A Light (a collaboration with Ben Harper) – have garnered Grammys. (What’s more, the Recording Academy also honored the Blind Boys with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.) Duets is not comprised of tracks from Blind Boys albums, but rather from equally acclaimed projects by other artists. One of the first such duets was the 1994 pairing of the Blind Boys and Bonnie Raitt on “When The Spell is Broken,” from the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat The Retreat. The positive response to this great dual performance convinced other artists of substance that there was great cachet in having the Blind Boys make guest appearances. Fellow blues-based artists such as Susan Tedeschi, Charlie Musselwhite, and the legendary Solomon Burke – a Blind Boys cohort since the 1950s – followed suit. Given the structural similarities between blues and gospel, such pairings were logical indeed. So, with just a slight change in rhythmic emphasis, was the multi-cultural meeting with the iconic reggae artist Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, on “Perfect Peace.”
But the appeal of the Blind Boys among artists and producers was hardly limited to music that’s closely linked to the group’s own distinctive style. Randy Travis invited the band to sing on a countrified version of the gospel classic “Up Above My Head,” while western-swing greats Asleep At The Wheel called them in for the bouncy admonition “The Devil Ain’t The Lazy.” The Blind Boys have long had a penchant for country music, and the country-tinged singing of artists such as The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit and Jars of Clay. What’s more, many traditional gospel songs flourish in black and white churches alike.
It may seem like a leap, however, for the Blind Boys to perform with Lou “Take A Walk On The Wild Side” Reed. This recording came about after Reed and the Blind Boys sang together at the General Assembly of the United Nations, in New York. Their rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” worked so well in concert that a session was immediately scheduled – and the partnership worked wonderfully. Ditto, turning 180 degrees, for the Blind Boys’ pairing with the roots-oriented children’s artist, Dan Zanes. Yet another surprising facet of the Blind Boys’ versatility is their collaboration with Ben Harper on “Take My Hand.” This song was recorded with the premise that Harper would simply produce a few Blind Boys tracks. But inspiration filled the studio, and instead Harper partnered with the band on the co-billed (and aptly entitled) album There Will Be A Light.
Such artistic successes speak both to the talent of all these assembled musicians and to the Blind Boys’ consummate, empathic knack for adapting their distinctive sound to enhance any situation. As the Blind Boys’ career marches incredibly on, Duets recognizes some of the band’s most impressive musical moments of their relatively recent years. With a sum far greater than its parts, this collection of tracks stands as both an organic, fully realized project and an important historical marker.
Thus it shall be written.