For 72 years, while some of their contemporaries jumped to secular fame, the Blind Boys of Alabama tightly held the gospel music torch.
That light is about to shine in Cajun country.
The legendary group, which has received five Grammy Awards, will perform Tuesday and Wednesday at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette.
The vocal quintet includes original member Jimmy Carter, who was one of the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind students who began the group in 1944.
“When we leave Lafayette, Lafayette will never be the same,” Carter said.
The Blind Boys aren’t the same. Carter is one of two surviving original members. (The other, Clarence Fountain, lives in Baton Rouge, but stopped touring in 2007.) Current member Joey Williams has his sight, though the group’s name still applies to vocalists Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie and Paul Beasley.
The group tunes, too, have evolved, incorporating more modern gospel and spiritualized interpretations of popular music. They’ve created spiritualized versions of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Prince’s “The Cross” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”
Still, tight harmonies and high-energy music still define the Blind Boys, who have sung in Europe, Asia and will be making one of many appearances in Australia next month.
“When we go on the stage and sing to an audience, our primary aim is to make them feel like we feel,” Carter said. “We feel good, and we want them to feel good. That’s what we do.”
In the segregated era when they began, their performances were entirely to black audiences, and they also sang at benefits for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., making them familiar to the civil rights movement. As musicians like Sam Cooke — with whom the Blind Boys toured on the gospel circuit — began finding a wider audience as crossover artists, Carter said the Blind Boys turned down similar overtures.
“We were dedicated to what we set out to do. We weren’t going to turn back no matter what,” Carter said. “Sam Cooke, for example, he crossed over. As a matter of fact, when he crossed over, the Blind Boys were at the same studio at the same time. But we turned it down and he did not.
“But, I want people to understand. A lot of people misread Sam. Although he crossed over, he did not forget where he came from.”
Though their popularity faded for the next two decades, they experienced a resurgence in the 1980s following their role in the Broadway production of “The Gospel at Colonus.” They’ve been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and performed at the White House for three presidents.
They have appeared on stage with musicians from a variety of venues, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Voodoo Fest in Louisiana, and with artists as varied as Dr. John, Willie Nelson, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Oak Ridge Boys and Aaron Neville.
The Lafayette performances are part of a four-state Southern tour in February with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.