Believer Or Unbeliever, The Blind Boys Of Alabama Will Sing To You

5 February 2016 | 4:26 pm | Liz Giuffre

"We don't care where you come from, we've got a song for you. You can be atheist, or agnostic, or whatever you want to be."

Carter played his first concerts in the early 1940s when he was literally just as a blind boy from a group at an Alabama school. These days he has played major festivals, opera houses and main stages around the world as well as winning six Grammys (including a lifetime achievement award). The focus now, as always, is on music for celebration — although he's not that fussed if his audience isn't always celebrating the same thing he is. "Well, first of all, we have to understand what Gospel really is; a lot of people don't really know what it really is," Carter says, with a beautiful husky southern accent. "Gospel to us, to us [he emphasises again] is the good news of god, telling the story that Jesus died one day that we might live. So that's what we're all about; we sing that kind of stuff and that's the message that we bring to the people. You know, we sing to believers, to unbelievers, we even sing to atheists, and, you know, that's alright. If they listen then we might have a chance to convert them and that's good. When we go on stage, I say, 'The Blind Boys are fortunate enough to be able to sing to anybody, we don't care where you come from, we've got a song for you. You can be atheist, or agnostic, or whatever you want to be'."

"Gospel to us, to us, is the good news of god, telling the story that Jesus died one day that we might live."

The Blind Boys' conversion is all about delivering good music performed well. It sounds simple, and it is, but it's not something that necessarily gets to the top of the line anymore (insert argument about whatever avant garde form of atonal stuff is fashionable this week). Carter agrees that he's noticed changes in the industry over the years, but they haven't troubled him too much. "If you sound good, we don't care how you look," he laughs when asked about the new wave of American Idol/'Someone's Got Talent' TV shows and their offspring. "When The Blind Boys of Alabama started out, many, many, many years ago", he laughs again, "the music was different because we just had an old hollow box acoustic guitar, that's all we had. But as time went on we had to get bass guitars, electric guitars, amplifiers and keyboards and all that stuff, so we had to change with the times. And now we have drums and all that stuff too, but it helps to have us all on track. To play with us [the younger ones] just have to be able to sing."

Carter does add that new Blind Boys' musicians do also "have to be willing to be go those extra miles because there are some things that The Blind Boys need sighted help to do". Audiences who have seen them before will know what this entails — basically being part guide/part coach for Jimmy and the original members as they walk and often dance around through the crowd as they sing. For blind men in their 80s, it's amazing and inspiring. So far the group have collaborated with many musicians from across different forms including Ben Harper, Bon Iver and Lou Reed. Still on the wishlist is another icon, Stevie Wonder, who Carter confirms they're in music-making talks with. "I think there will come a time when we will do something together. I don't know when, he wants to do it and so do we, so evidently we're going to make it happen. I love country music too, and there's a blind guy called Ronnie Milsap who makes great country music. I'd love to work with him too."

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The last little while has seen quite a few music icons recalled to the Stairway To Heaven; something that artists of Carter's experience have, unfortunately, come to endure regularly. "Well of course we feel bad, we sad when we lose some of our people that we've been knowing for a long time," he explains. "We just lost Otis Clay [the soul music icon who died just a couple of days before David Bowie] and we just lost Natalie Cole at the end of last year. I had a chance to meet Natalie Cole and I knew Otis Clay, and so it was painful, but, you know, it's something that we have no control over."