Clarence Fountain, a foundational American gospel singer and the last remaining co-founder of Blind Boys of Alabama, died June 3 in Baton Rouge, La. at the age of 88, his manager Charles Driebe confirmed to NPR. No cause was given.
Blind Boys of Alabama, originally called the Happyland Jubilee Singers when the group was founded in 1944, played a large role in shepherding gospel music into mainstream popularity. Largely due to Fountain's holy dedication, the band forever resisted calls to transition into the more commercial genres it helped birth: R&B and rock and roll. "There was no way we were going to go pop or rock," Fountain is quoted in a press release confirming his death. "Who needed it? Our bellies were full, we had no headaches, we were happy. At least I was happy, singing real gospel." Fountain's pop resistance resulted in the severing of at least two professional relationships — one with the manager of Ray Charles, the other with Specialty Records, the Blind Boys' label during the early '50s.
In fact, Fountain was present for the signing of a contract that would make Sam Cooke one of the most popular singers of the century, after Cooke decided to transition away from gospel. "When the man gave him a contract he gave me one, too. He offered me one, I just didn't take it," Fountain told the Oxford American in 2010. "I thought it was a thing that he shouldn't have done. But listen, you can't control people. Y'know? They have a mind of their own. And I think that the Lord gave me a few more years, just for that particular thing that I did. I ain't saying it's true! But I'm here, and he gone."
Despite Fountain's resistance to recording pop music, Blind Boys of Alabama would go on to collaborate with artists such as rock legend Lou Reed, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits.
After netting a hit on Vee-Jay Records in 1948 called "I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine," the Happyland Jubilee Singers, already full-time professionals, played a concert that same year billed as a competition between two groups of blind boys — Alabama and Mississippi, respectively. The name stuck.
The professionalism of Fountain would sustain the group's career for well over 60 years. As manager Charles Driebe explains in an email to NPR, when a hurricane caused one show in Memphis back in 2001 to have an uncharacteristically low turnout, Driebe suggested they cut the show from its scheduled 90 minutes to 75. But Fountain was having none of it. "No, Charles," Driebe remembers him saying, "these people paid their money and we are going to give them the full show no matter how many of them there are!' " During the set, Blind Boys were accompanied by an all-star band including Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond and David Lindley.
Other than a solo stint in the '60s, Fountain would lead Blind Boys from its inception until 2007, when health problems related to diabetes forced him to forgo the road and his role as a leader on it, though he would continue to record with the group when able. The group won five Grammys and the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, and was nominated for another four. It is also a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts' Heritage Fellowship and an inductee to both the Alabama and Gospel Music halls of fame.
With Fountain's passing, the only original member of the group still living is Jimmy Carter, who was too young to hit the road when Fountain first began leading it, but joined shortly after. As Carter told NPR in August, 2017: "I always tell the people who ask me: When the Blind Boys started out, we weren't looking for any accolades, awards or nothing — we just wanted to get out there and sing gospel music. But since the accolades came, we were glad to get them!"