NICK EICHER, HOST: Before we go, we want to leave you with a commemoration of a great American musician.
Amid all the headlines related to Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, you may have missed another notable death from last week.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Clarence Fountain, a founding member of the legendary gospel music group Blind Boys of Alabama, died on June 3rd. He was 88.
Here now is WORLD National Editor Jamie Dean on Fountain’s life and legacy.
JAMIE DEAN: Clarence Fountain was born in Tyler, Alabama, in 1929. That put him growing up during the Great Depression—and the throes of the Jim Crow era in the South. At age 8, he began attending what was then called the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind.
At the school in Talladega, Fountain met a handful of young men with something in common other than visual impairment: They could all sing. They formed a group and began singing gospel music that was equal parts sorrow and joy.
Their first hit came in 1948, and it was a lament to the Lord about a son losing his mother. The song was called “I Can See Everybody’s Mother, But I Can’t See Mine.”
The group gained steam during a golden era of gospel music, with a blues-infused style that led similar singers to eventually migrate from gospel to Motown. Fountain and his group made a deliberate choice: they’d stick with gospel music.
It meant giving up a shot at a far more money and greater international fame. But late in his life, Fountain told an interviewer he never regretted the decision.
AUDIO: It has been a joy to just talk about Jesus—that’s the most important thing. I believe that we were born for that purpose—to carry out the message of Jesus Christ, our precious Lord and Savior, and I think we couldn’t have done no better if we had tried to sing rock and roll music – I don’t think we would have made it.
The group still achieved wonderful success. During his exuberant performances, Fountain often sang about God’s grace and the joy of going to heaven.
The group’s manager, Charles Driebe, later reflected on their success. Driebe said as blind, African American males in the Deep South during Jim Crow, these men were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms for a living. But they transcended all that.
Last year, The Atlantic magazine asked Fountain if he was sad his declining health kept him from touring with the group, which now includes newer members. Fountain replied: “Everybody has a point in life when your time is out. But I thank Him for letting me live as long as I have.”
Over a long life, Fountain sang about the futility of living apart from the Lord. He summed up that truth in the words of another song about learning the most important thing in life: “Do What The Lord Say Do.”
For WORLD Radio, I’m Jamie Dean.