When The Blind Boys of Alabama step on a stage, they’re on a mission.
Original member Jimmy Carter introduces the gospel group, which was formed in 1944 by students at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Carter also sets up the songs and, led by The Blind Boys’ road manager, Willie “Chuck” Shivers, walks through the audience, singing and shaking hands along the way.
“Well, when I go out on that stage, I tell the people I hope we can say something or sing something that will lift them up and make them feel good,” Carter said. “Our goal is to make people feel what we feel.
“As a matter of fact, if you come to a concert where The Blind Boys are and go back the same way you came, we failed you. So we try our best, we give it all we have, all the time.”
Carter and fellow members of The Blind Boys of Alabama will be doing their best when they perform Sunday at 3:55 p.m. in the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
Later Sunday, the group will be among Dr. John’s special guests on the Gentilly Stage. The Blind Boys are featured on Dr. John’s latest album, a Louis Armstrong tribute, singing “What a Wonderful World” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.”
“Dr. John has soul,” Carter said. “He does his own thing, but he loves gospel music.”
When The Blind Boys participated in last year’s Jazz Fest-timed all-star tribute to Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre, Carter’s excitement lit up the room.
“I just love to do what I do,” he explained. “Sometimes I get carried away.”
The Blind Boys have survived evolving membership, tumultuous years and changing times.
“The first thing you got to do when you set out to do this kind of work, you have to be dedicated,” said Carter, who lives in Birmingham. “It’s a long, hard, grueling process. You’re going to have setbacks. You’re going to have obstacles. You have to press on.”
Unlike Sam Cooke, a member of gospel group The Soul Stirrers before he crossed over and became a major pop and rhythm-and-blues star, the fame and riches secular music can bring never tempted Carter.
“When they invited Sam Cooke to cross over, they offered us the same thing,” Carter said. “We turned it down. We said, ‘No, we’re gonna stick with gospel.’ Our parents brought us up that way and we were determined not to deviate.”
The Blind Boys and Cooke often crossed paths when Cooke was still singing gospel with The Soul Stirrers.
“Even though Sam crossed over, he did not forsake his gospel roots,” Carter said. “He just wanted to make some little more money, that’s all.”
The Blind Boys eventually achieved fame that rivaled that of pop stars. In the early 2000s, the group hit a Grammy Awards streak.
They’ve received four Grammys for their recordings and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Like I always say, better late than never,” Carter said.
When The Blind Boys formed 71 years ago, they did so with no dreams of riches and fame. One of the group’s founding members, the now retired Clarence Fountain, lives in Baton Rouge. “We weren’t even looking for money, what it takes to live,” Carter recalled. “We just wanted to sing gospel music.”
An earlier gospel group, The Golden Gate Quartet, inspired The Blind Boys’ formation.
“The Golden Gate Quartet was already on the road,” he said. “They were our idols. We said, ‘Well, if they can do it, we ought to be able to do it, too.’”
Love kept him and The Blind Boys going, Carter said.
“When you love what you do, it keeps you motivated. We love singing gospel music. We’ve been doing it now for decades. That’s all we know how to do. So we’re going to continue to do that.”