One day in 1937, Jimmy Carter’s mother drove the 54 miles from Birmingham, Alabama to Taladega, home of the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind, dropped him off and drove away.
“I was a 7-year-old boy who knew no one there, not one person,” Carter says. “I felt like the whole world had come to an end. But in fact, she did me a favor because I got an education and I met the other Blind Boys of Alabama.”
The boys first sang together in the school choir in 1939. They gave their first public performance in 1944. Carter fronted the band that day as he does now, 75 years and 77 albums later. He is the last surviving original member.
The Blind Boys dropped out of school in 1945, and hit the road in their manager’s ’39 Buick.
“All we wanted to do was to get out of that school and sing gospel music,” Carter says.
In the 1950s and later in the ’70s, artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and others crossed over from pure gospel to secular soul and eventually to rock ‘n’ roll. Not so for the Blind Boys.
“We made a vow, a pledge to one another that we would not deviate from our calling,” Carter says. “We were gonna stick to gospel no matter what. The money might have looked alright, but we weren’t thinking about that.”
Two incidents drove the group’s transition from playing for primarily black church audiences to a wider fan base. The first was in the ’80s when they appeared collectively as Oedipus in the musical theater production The Gospel at Colonus. The play was heralded as a landmark in American musical theater history and won a Tony award. And full-on mainstream acclaim followed their first of what is now five Grammys, for Spirit of the Century in 2001, which contained an unusual arrangement of the gospel standard “Amazing Grace” set to the chords and rhythms of the traditional folk tale of a life gone wrong in New Orleans “The House of the Rising Sun.” The group wasn’t too sure about it in the beginning.
“When that arrangement was brought to us, we rejected it as sacrilegious,” Carter says. “But they convinced us to record it and on playback and live it was very well-received.”
Currently on their annual Christmas tour, the setlist will offer both Christmas songs and traditional gospel selections.
“The Blind Boys are on their way,” he says. “And by the time we leave, Monterey will never be the same.”
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA 7:30pm Tuesday, Dec. 17. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $35-$65. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com.