We recently trekked down to the Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts – a more than an hour-and-a-half drive there during Rush Hour, the return trip later that night: thirty-eight minutes. We were traveling to a concert, featuring the magnificent New Orleans-style jazz pianist Dr. John, appearing with the renowned Gospel quartet, the Blind Boys of Alabama.
We had seen – if it’s not a rude reminder to say so – the Blind Boys once before, performing on a bill with country icon Merle Haggard, and perennial 60’s folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. On both occasions, the Blind Boys blew away the other performers, and absolutely made the place jump!
You just have to see the Blind Boys in person. Their infectious energy and matchless spirit lift you right out of your seat. And not because they said, “Get up!” I was ready to get up anyway!
The Blind Boys’ presentation spoke directly to my soul. To that point, I was unaware I had one. They had me stamping my feet and feeling the feeling with such uninhibited abandon that when we ran into some friends after the show, the first words out of my mouth were,
“I’m ready to convert!”
Earlier that evening, as we were pulling into the parking area, we caught sight of the Blind Boys heading into the building, proceeding in a snaking, hand-on-the-shoulder-of-man-in-front-of-them maneuver, a sighted person leading the way. Their inability to see was a “given.” What caught my attention was an awareness that the beloved Blind Boys were getting old.
(Writer’s Note: I am aware that referring to adult black men as “boys” is understandably offensive, but that’s what the Blind Boys, their age not withstanding, call themselves. So for the current purposes, I will too.)
It came to mind that replacements for the rapidly aging Blind Boys will very shortly need to be found. Cursory research reveals only one original Blind Boy is still in full-time participation. And he’s up in his seventies.
This means, that, as has already taken place, unless, God forbid, they disband and disappear, new Blind Boys of Alabama will almost surely have to be recruited.
I started thinking – because, for better or worse, it’s how my mind works – how not at all easy that replacement challenge would be.
Imagine the minisculity of that target. The easiest qualification – he said, only partially facetiously – is that they be wonderful singers.
It goes without saying that any newly-arriving Blind Boy needs to be African-American. That’s not racist; it is simply the way it is. All enduring singing groups face personnel changes. When that happens, you inevitably replace “like” with “like.” You do not recruit a Caucasian “Temptation.” Nor a Native-American “Shirelle.”
Gender consistency must also be maintained. When the “Supremes” faced attrition, they did not throw a guy in there. Though there were several, I am sure, who were ready.
So, for openers, any aspiring Blind Boy must, be definition, be an African-American man. Who can electrifyingly belt out a Spiritual.
Unfortunately, we are just getting started. There are still the geographical and ocular considerations.
A Blind Boy of Mississippi?
“Won’t sound the same.”
An Alabama Boy with astigmatism?
“Not good enough.”
An Alabaman, blind in one eye?
“Close, but no cigar.”
You need the entire package – a sightless, black male Alabaman who can sing like a bird with religious convictions. No wonder these guys stay on till their seventies. It’s nearly impossible finding someone suitable to step in.
“Wouldn’t you know it? I’m blind, I’m black and I’m from Alabama. But, you know, when you step on a cat’s tail? That’s my voice! In baseball, you go three-for-four, you’re a hero. Here, I’m just an out-of-work blind guy from Tuscaloosa.”
Considering the virtually insurmountable replacement issues, and with a fervent desire for the “Boys” to continue, here’s hoping the current participants remain hale and hearty for a long time to come. Nobody gets to me like they do.
Except maybe Sophie Tucker singing “My Yiddishe Mama.”