Jimmy Carter knew early on that singing gospel music was his calling.
He and the other founding members of the Blind Boys of Alabama met at the Talladega School for the Blind (now part of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind), and started singing together in the school choir in 1939.
“When we got started we weren’t worried about fame, we didn’t care about that,” said Carter. “All we wanted to do was get out of school and sing gospel music and touch people’s lives.”
The lineup has changed over seven decades but the group is still going strong, making records and performing for audiences around the world. Their current tour schedule list dates through August from Alabama to Amsterdam.
Carter was born blind, and his lack of sight caused him to question God. But, he said, he felt God answer that he wouldn’t be singing if he could see.
On June 10, 1944, the Blind Boys made their first live appearance on WSGN radio. Clarence Fountain, George Scott and Olice Thomas were the other original members.
By the late 1940s, the Blind Boys were touring full-time, performing for segregated audiences in churches and schools.
In the early 1960s, the band sang at benefits for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and were a part of the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. As the years passed, gospel fans started to drift away and the Blind Boys saw their audiences dwindle.
A turning point came in 1983 when the group appeared in the off-Broadway production of “Gospel at Colonus,” a contemporary musical adaptation of the Greek tragedy “Oedipus at Colonus.”
The play garnered years of critical praise and was acclaimed a landmark of the American musical theater. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
Through the years, the Blind Boys of Alabama performed for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They’ve won five Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and four Dove Awards.
“I feel this is my calling; God called me to do his work,” Carter said.
At 90, he said he feels good and is in good health. Carter’s message: Even though you have a disability, you’re not limited in what you can do.
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The gospel group represents perseverance, dedication, determination and longevity. It has a direct connection to one of the nation’s top schools – the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind – and recalls one of the state’s greatest icons in Helen Keller.
Then there is the music.
Soul-stirring, spirit-lifting, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, life-changing music. It flows like the Alabama River. It swings like a pine limb in the Alabama wind. It burns like an Alabama summer. It satisfies like an Alabama Sunday dinner.
The Blind Boys of Alabama are the elder statesmen headlining the free Tuscaloosa Bicentennial Bash at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on Saturday, March 30. Doors open at 1 p.m. The city is marking its own bicentennial this year on Dec. 13, one day before the state’s bicentennial on Dec. 14.