The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama - Something Got Hold Of Me (Gospel 1047)
Something Got Hold Of Me
Part One of Four
Clarence Fountain, blind from his birth in 1929, was sent to the Talladega School for the Negro Deaf and Blind in eastern Alabama. By the time he was 12 years old, he was singing white traditional music in the school's 'glee club' by day, and tuning in to WSGN in Birmingham at night to hear The Golden Gate Quartet do their thing. He and his pals tried to imitate their Jubilee style of singing, and before long were performing together as a group in the area.
Pictured here in the only known photograph from that period, they called themselves The Happy Land Jubilee Singers, and began touring the southern Gospel circuit. By 1946, they were singing regularly on WDOD in Chatanooga, Tennessee, and had made quite a name for themselves. In early 1947, founding member Velma Bozeman Traylor died in some kind of shooting accident, leaving Fountain, George Scott, J.T. Hutton, Olice Thomas and Johnny Fields to carry on.
Their radio broadcasts caught the ear of The Coleman Brothers, a Jubillee styled group that had performed at FDR's funeral, and had a few hit records under their belt. The brothers had formed their own record company up in Newark, New Jersey, and invited The Happy Land Singers to record for them. They covered a song that The Colemans had already released on DECCA, I Can See Everybody's Mother But Mine, and it "sold like mad".
A Newark promoter named Ronnie Fields had booked both the Jackson Harmoneers and The Happy Land Singers and billed the show as "The Battle Of The Blind Boys". The raucous competition between Clarence Fountain and Harmoneers' lead singer Archie Brownlee to 'tear down the house' was a huge success, and led to both groups changing their names to "The Five Blind Boys", of Mississippi and Alabama respectively. They took the show on the road, traveling together, just layin' em out in the aisles (In a brilliant promotional move, they always had a couple of ambulances lined up outside to transport any of the faithful that were about to be 'slain in the spirit'!). Fountain has said of that period, "...it was just what the doctor ordered. We learned how to love each other, to be brothers, and put things together and go all over the country. The audience loved it, and ate it up like cornbread and black-eyed peas."
Pilgrim Traveler J.W. Alexander caught their act in Detroit, and convinced Art Rupe to sign them to his Specialty label in 1953. Their first release for the label, "When I Lost My Mother", showcased their new 'hard gospel' style and just took off - selling over a hundred thousand copies - more than label mates the Travelers and the Soul Stirrers combined. They began to travel the 'Gospel Highway' together in package tours put together by the record company, and the Blind Boys were basically stealing the show.
George Scott's groundbreaking electric guitar work was a big part of the group's 'sound' and (reportedly after they just 'killed' the Soul Stirrers at a show in Passaic, New Jersey) was instrumental in the Stirrers hiring guitarist Bob King in 1955. (As you may recall, King was the man who wrote It Must Be Jesus, the 1954 Southern Tones hit that Ray Charles 'borrowed' to create I Got A Woman...).
Fountain also befriended the Stirrers' new vocalist, a kid from Chicago named Sam Cooke. He was only 14 months older than Sam, and recalls that he was "...an all right cat. He had a good solid mind, and he could just stop and read you a book... He didn't mind taking you to the bathroom, doing things with blind people that a lot of people don't like to do. Sam was all right when he was all right".
When asked about Cooke's 'crossing over' in 1956 he said, "We were there, we knew exactly what went down... I was in the studio with Sam Cooke when he signed his contract. The man offered me one just like he did him, but I turned it down because that ain't what I told the Lord I wanted to do... I told the Lord 'if you do this, and you do that, then I'll stay out in the Gospel field and work for You alone...' It's what I promised Him. When you promise God something, you don't go back on that." Fountain goes on to say that Sam "got to be too big for his own self... he was a good arranger, he could write, he could do everything he had to do, but my theory is that he failed to realize that God is in control, and if you promise the Lord you're going to do something, you need to follow that..." He feels that "Sam was the turncoat in Gospel, and that tore the Gospel circuit down to the ground, because people didn't believe we were sincere".
In any event, The Blind Boys left Specialty, who had begun focusing its energy on its rock & roll artists like Little Richard and Larry Williams, in 1957. By 1959, they were back in Newark, and had signed with Herman Lubinsky's Savoy label. Their records were released on his Gospel subsidiary under the direction of Ozzie Cadena, and they just cooked!
By the time our current selection was released in January of 1961, Archie Brownlee had died, The Pilgrim Travelers had thrown in the towel, and the 'golden age of Gospel' had essentially come to an end. Nobody told the Blind Boys, I guess... Check out George Scott's blistering guitar, and Fountain's unbelievable vocals... great God almighty! When Clarence starts testifying about how the 'holy ghost got in his body', it just knocks me out, man. You (astute observer that you are) can't help but notice the 'similarity' to Etta James' monster 1962 hit Something's Got A Hold On Me, right? Although the label on our single credits Blind Boys' baritone Johnny Fields as the composer, his name isn't mentioned in the BMI listing for the Etta tune... just a liitle more 'secularization', I suppose.
...to be continued