Fountain, who died on June 3 at age 88, never did go back. And gospel music has been all the richer as a result.
In the decade-plus before he opted for the road less traveled, Fountain had been honing his charismatically exuberant vocal technique in front of black-church audiences as the lead singer of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Their rough, fervent style eventually became the black-gospel-group norm, superseding the more staid demeanor made popular by “jubilee” singers. And Fountain’s voice—a rich, gritty tenor prone to exploding into ecstatic shrieks—was the group’s calling card.
From the late 1940s to the early ’80s, the Boys recorded numerous albums and singles for a variety of labels, some major (Specialty, Vee-Jay), most not. The spotty distribution of their obscurer releases kept them from developing a following in keeping with the quality of their work. And the multiple ways in which they were billed—as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Original Blind Boys of Alabama, Clarence Fountain and the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama—made for a rack jobber’s nightmare.
The situation finally began to change in 1985 when the Blind Boys joined the cast of the hit musical The Gospel at Colonus. (Fountain played Oedipus.) When the show’s Broadway run came to an end, they found themselves in demand among tonier audiences than those for whom they’d previously performed. And, with the help of a shrewd booking agency, they were able to capitalize on the situation.
The nomenclature irregularities persisted—although most of their late-career-resurgence albums were credited to “The Blind Boys of Alabama,” the first (and arguably the best) of them, 1992’s Deep River, was credited to “The Five Blind Boys of Alabama Featuring Clarence Fountain.” But the recordings themselves, many of which paired the group with sympathetic contemporary musicians and producers, were as consistent and as committed as anything else in the Blind Boys’ oeuvre.
And, besides traditional gospel, they also featured rootsy covers of gospel-friendly songs by the likes of Prince, Ben Harper, Tom Waits, Eric Clapton, the Chi-Lites, Stevie Wonder, and the Rolling Stones.
So Fountain ended up singing rock ’n’ roll after all—but only if it rocked for Jesus and rolled for God.