gospel great clarence fountainmight blow up, but he won't go pop. Call it moral fortitude or just plain bullheadedness, but long before his Blind Boys of Alabama won a Grammy for their fabulous Spirit Of The Century (Real World) disc, the charismatic shouter was turning down tempting offers to cross over into the secular world.
Back as early as 56, then producer Bumps Blackwell, who helped Soul Stirrers heartthrob Sam Cooke make the jump, was certain he could do the same for the Blind Boys of Alabama, but Fountain declined. The persuasive Cooke got nowhere coaxing Fountain over to the soul side with a reputed "name your price" offer for a solo deal. It could have made Fountain a wealthy and famous man, but he wanted no part of it.
"He wanted me to sing rock and roll, so I turned him down flat," shrugs Fountain. "It was never my intention to sing anything but gospel. I still wouldn't change for a million bucks."
Fountain may be determined to follow the straight and narrow, but there's no denying that the Blind Boys of Alabama's new Higher Ground disc is as close as they've ever come to making a secular recording, and the results are a huge disappointment.
A big part of the problem is the lame quasi-gospel song selection -- including Funkadelic's You And Your Folks, Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross, Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground and Prince's The Cross -- suggested by producer John Chelew, who was obviously trying to build on the mainstream appeal of Spirit Of The Century.
It's not at all the sort of God-praising and mother-missing material that the Blind Boys of Alabama sing best, and clearly their hearts aren't in it.
"They got a pile of songs together and offered them to us so we could pick the ones we liked. If you listen to the words of that Prince song, The Cross, that's a gospel tune. Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready -- that's a gospel tune, too. If we felt the lyrics of a song went too far across the line, we wouldn't do it.
"They came up with a lot of Jimi Hendrix songs and even picked out some they really wanted us to do, but I wanted no part of it. I don't know what those songs meant to Jimi Hendrix, but they sure weren't saying anything to me. They were too bluesy, too rock and roll, so I turned them all down."
What ruins Higher Ground is the overplaying of sacred steel upstart Robert Randolph and guitarist Ben Harper, who appear to have been brought in to tap the jam-band crowd. Their self-indulgent histrionics nearly drown out the majestic voices of Fountain and fellow Blind Boys veterans Jimmy Carter and George Scott.
"They needed to play soft, like music is supposed to be played when accompanying singers, but they had a problem with that. You're not doing your job as an accompanist if you're playing over everyone else."
True enough. However, the responsibility for the destructive guitar overload on Higher Ground ultimately rests with the session producer. Fountain has no plans to return to the studio with Chelew any time soon.
"Our theories and his theories don't really go together. He's got some good ideas that work for him, but when it comes to the Blind Boys of Alabama, I believe I have some better ideas. You know, change is always good. I'll be satisfied if I produce our next record myself."
Before they get to record their planned Christmas album, the Blind Boys will be making a few guest appearances on discs by Buena Vista crooner Ibrahim Ferrer, Robert Plant and Lou Reed. Apparently, adding vocal parts to Reed's forthcoming Raven album (due January 28) -- based on the writing of Edgar Alan Poe -- was an experience Fountain won't soon forget.
"That was the awfulest shit I've ever heard! He can't sing -- he would just talk, and I didn't even like the way his voice sounded. We did one song, and only the background parts. I still haven't got paid for it."firstname.lastname@example.org
THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA with Hukwe Zawose opening for PETER GABRIEL at the Air Canada Centre (40 Bay), Monday (December 2). $45-$130. 416-870-8000.