Gospel greats Blind Boys of Alabama talk Christmas

For more than 70 years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have remained at the forefront of gospel. Led by founding member Jimmy Carter, the vocalists who met as children at what is now the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind descend upon SFJAZZ this week with a new uplifting holiday show.

The evening mixes traditional gospel, selections from their latest seasonal album, a collaboration with Taj Mahal called “Talkin’ Christmas!,” as well as tunes from their first Grammy-winning Christmas disc, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

“I always try to put Christ in Christmas,” Carter declared by phone from his home in Birmingham, Ala. “Christmas has been so commercialized. I like to put up my tree, eat good Christmas food, and all that, but I also like to put Christ back into Christmas. When it comes down to the end of the day, that’s whose birthday we’re celebrating.”

The Blind Boys’ longevity is as legendary as their unshakable faith. When, after singing at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the heyday of the first Civil Rights era, they discovered musical tastes changing, they updated their repertoire without compromising their beliefs.

Their first of five Grammy Awards was for “Spirit of the Century,” which included songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones. Since then, they have worked with Peter Gabriel, Ben Harper, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Willie Nelson, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), tenor Ben Heppner, Shara Worden and The Brightest Diamond, and others.

“These collaborations came about because we wanted to try to get more young people involved in our music,” Carter says. “We started with Ben Harper. Young people relate to him, and that gave them a chance to really, really listen to our music.”

Carter, who has performed with The Blind Boys since they hit the road in 1944, is a bit coy about his age. When gently pressed, he acknowledged only so much: “You know, when Jack Benny got to 39, he said he was 39 and holding? This is my 44th or 39th anniversary of turning 39. Something like that,” he quips. According to Wikipedia, the “something” is 47.

“You can never sing it all,” Carter confesses. “You just have to sing until God says, ‘That’s enough.’”

Yet one reason the Blind Boys have endured is that, for them, enough is never enough. Carter’s final words (for now): “We’re going to give you the best concert that we can. We don’t like to shortchange anybody. We give 110 percent everywhere we go.”

IF YOU GO
The Blind Boys of Alabama
Where: SFJAZZ, 201 Franklin St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18
Tickets: $35 to $95
Contact: (866) 920-5299, www.sfjazz.org

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