In 1939 during the Jim Crow era, baritone Clarence Fountain, bass Johnny Fields, baritone and guitarist George Scott, baritone Ollice Thomas, and tenor Velma Trayler, all elementary school students attending the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind and singing in its glee club, formed an ensemble, The Blind Boys of Alabama. All of the members were blind except for Fountain, who was visually impaired. They were first called the “Happyland Jubilee Singers.”
In addition, to their required basic academics at the Institute, they were taught to read Braille, make brooms, chairs, and shelves. During their early teens, in 1944, they left school and began singing and making money in local churches and community activities. However, they did not record until 1948, releasing their debut single, “I can see everybody’s mother but mine,” on the Veejay label.
In 1953, Blind Boys of Alabama signed a contract with Art Rupe’s California-based Specialty Records. However, the relationship dissolved after five years as they refusal to sing secular music. After leaving Specialty Records in 1957, the group briefly signed with a few small labels before joining the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label. The group recorded extensively for the Vee-Jay label, coming out with “Can I get a witness” in 1964.
In 1982, they recorded the album I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord, with the Philadelphia producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. And the following year, 1983, they received national acclaim for their performance in the Off-Broadway stage production of Gospel at Colonus, a contemporary musical adaptation of the Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles but set in a black Pentecostal church. The production received two OBIE Awards and nominations for a Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award.
In 1992, the Blind Boys received their first Grammy nomination for the album Deep River. A decade later, in 2001, The Blind Boys of Alabama released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and won the first of their Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album. In addition, they won consecutive Grammys for “Higher Ground” in 2002, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in 2003, and “There Will Be a Light” (a collaboration with Ben Harper) in 2004 which peaked at #81 on Billboard 200 and was six weeks on the chart.
In 2014 the Blind Boys released Talkin’ Christmas, a collaboration with Taj Mahal. Three years later in 2017 the Blind Boys released Almost Home on the band’s own BBOA Records label in collaboration with Amazon Music.
Velma Trayler died in 1947 at 24, George Scott died in 2005 at the age of 75. Johnny Fields died in 2009 at 82; Clarence Fountain died in 2018. He was 88. Ollice Thomas died in 2020 at 94.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, one of the most extended ongoing gospel groups, remains active with new members and relevant with its gospel legacy extending into 21st century music.