by Hope Lopez
The Blind Boys of Alabama (also known as The Five Blind Boys of Alabama and not to be confused with The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) formed in 1937 at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Alabama. In the 1940s, the Blind Boys recorded for Specialty, Vee Jay, Savoy, Elektra. Now on Real World with Spirit of the Century, their most recent release, the band members have changed a bit, but the exuberant gospel remains the same.
As one of the more recent members of the Blind Boys of Alabama, Joey Williams talks to Hope Lopez about what it's like to be almost the youngest member of the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Joey Williams: It was great. We love WOMAD. We played Reading, England, last year or the year before. We have a few more lined up--one in Singapore and in South Africa.
How is it playing to a secular crowd?
Williams: You know, gospel music has an advantage. Everyone at one point has either heard some gospel, experienced some gospel music, or has been to church. Usually, we're pretty well-received when we do secular audiences 'cuz that's about 90 percent of the audiences we actually play to.
Did you start out playing in churches?
Williams: Individually, definitely. We started out playing in our respective churches. But the Blind Boys themselves started together in school. More than likely, we were going to church together or in a glee club.
How and when did you get hooked up with the Blind Boys?
Williams: It was about eight years ago and I was with another gospel group called The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and we both were on the same bill. One of the guys approached me and asked me if I could find them a guitarist for the Blind Boys. So after a little research, I started looking and didn't find anyone. Then I researched the Blind Boys to see what they were doing and went back to them and said, "I think I found you someone and that someone is me." [Laughs]
That was about eight years ago, and I've been with them ever since.
What's it like to be the youngest member of the band?
Williams: Actually, I'm not, but I look the youngest. [Laughs] Actually, there's one other guy that's younger than me. But I am the youngest of the steady band that's been there for this long.
What's it like working with Clarence and Jimmy?
Williams: It's a definite honor. I've learned more through these guys than I would have from some music school. I mean, eight years of vocal training and vocal arrangement, because I was just a musician. I was actually just a guitar player that did background (vocals) when needed. So, I really wasn't doing much singing. I mean, I used sing with my father's group years ago. and they saw me then. But I started learning how to sing and learning harmonies when I got with these guys.
So, the experience there can't even measure--I can't compare it to schooling. Plus, the travel on top of that... All the continents, all over the world, time and time over. The experience is an honor and a privilege working with these cats.
I can only imagine the wealth of knowledge--musically and spiritually--from them.
Williams: Yes, it's phenomenal. It gets trying sometimes... Life on the road gets pretty hectic with long flights, and long, long days. Usually, we fly in the day before, but sometimes we have to play in on that day. Sometimes there are train trips and flights overseas.
[Sighs with a smile] It gets a little hectic sometimes but in retrospect, everything pans out.
"Amazing Grace" on the record is done to the music of "House of the Rising Sun." As well, the songs on it by Ben Harper, Tom Waits and Keith Richards aren't traditional gospel songs. Were those artistic decisions?
Williams: Actually, we didn't choose that one. John Chelew , our producer had the idea. He came up to with the music and thought it would be a great to put "Amazing Grace" to this tune.
It sounds great.
Williams: Clarence was a bit hesitant about doing it and didn't see the vision. The rest of us did. We went on and we did it and it came out great. It is one of the best tunes on the record.
Clarence was a little difficult throughout the session. Everyone else just hung on--grin and bear it! As we went on, it started getting better and better. Because we were there for a week at Capitol Records in Hollywood. Being there with all the pictures on the wall of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra--all those pictures on the wall--was great to experience. And with such great musicians like David Lindley, John Hammond, Russell White, and Danny Thompson, it got better and better. I guess for Clarence, the music is so different from what we do as a group, he wasn't used to it.
After we got started everything came together. John just wouldn't be denied. [Laughs] And I was the go-between. It actually worked out. Chris Goldsmith was really steadfast and they were like, "If you can get it through, get through." I kinda got it through. We made it happen.
As a guitar player, who were your influences growing up and who are your influences now?
Williams: George Benson was my favorite. My father bought me George Benson album, Breezin'. I was a little upset, because that's all I got for my birthday--not realizing that this proved to be okay in my life later on.
My father started me playing guitar was eight. I actually went on a mini-tour when I was 10-years-old. I turned 11 in Orlando, Florida, at a gospel show while I was on tour with this gospel band. So, I've been doing this for a long time.
I started playing drums at first. My Father bought me a little snare drum and then he got me a guitar. He was my first influences, and then George Benson was. And there are some guys in gospel that I've been listening to: Eddie Alfred, Scott Alexander, Sugar Hightower. And then I branched out, listening to everybody. I love Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy. The list goes on and on... David Lindley.. There's so many, 'cuz I love so many different styles of music.
What are some projects in the near future?
Williams: I'm doing some recording with some R&B cats like Keith Sweat, Dave Hollister, and Coko from SWV. My first priority is The Blind Boys. We have done something with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. They asked me to arrange two of their songs that they did with Led Zeppelin. I'll be busy with that. Speaking of an honor and a privilege, I really got to put my head into that and turn it into a Blind Boys sort of thing. We just did this thing with Lou Reed. We backed him up on one of his songs, "I Wanna Know."
As a musician, how do you find your own voice, especially when playing traditional gospel songs?
Williams: Usually, I put my own spin on whatever I am playing. I put my own feel into what I'm playing. I do a lot of R&B recording and do other things besides The Blind Boys. Wherever I go, I take Joey Williams.