Tuesday, November 15, 2011
THE ORIGINAL FIVE BLIND BOYS - SOMEONE WATCHES
Over the years, I have listened to hundreds of thousands of records (if not a million). But there have only been TWO times when I literally backed away from my speakers, fearing that they were going to explode and kill me with shrapnel. First time was when I brought home my first 78 by Howlin' Wolf - "No Place To Go". Same riff over and over again. ONE chord. Recorded VERY hot on the VU meter (and on 78 it's even LOUDER). Then Wolf's voice hit me like a sledgehammer to the cranium. I literally had to get away from the speakers in awe of what was coming out of them.
Second time? This record. This time, however, it wasn't the frightening sound of the voice that made me step back. I'd heard lots of gospel singers before. Powerful vocals are their stock-in-trade. No, the thing that made me back away from the speakers this time was the sheer VOLUME coming from this group of singers.
Of course, this wasn't just any group of singers, and Archie Brownlee wasn't just any gospel lead. These guys had been at it since 1936, when they were formed at the Piney Woods school for the blind near Jackson, Mississippi. The school needed money, and the principal decided to gather four of the students to form a group to do appearances to raise money for the school. They called themselves the Cotton Blossom Singers, singing folk and spiritual tunes. The group soon toured around the area, and caught the ear of folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded the group for the Library of Congress in March 1937. Strangely, they recorded their folk material under the name Abraham, Woodard & Patterson. Even more strangely, they recorded their gospel sides for Lomax under the name "Blind Boys" instead of the Cotton Blossom Singers.
When the Lomax recordings failed to set the world on fire, the group continued to sing around the school, and after graduation decided to try and make it on their own. They had a dual strategy - they would sing pop tunes for white audiences as the Cotton Blossom Singers, and gospel for black audiences as the Jackson Harmoneers. They turned professional in 1944, and became travelers on the gospel highway. It was around this time that the group recruited a second lead singer, Melvin Henderson, and the quartet became a quintet.
The Jackson Harmoneers worked steadily, but were just another gospel harmony group, singing in the "jubilee" style of the 1940s. Then they met Rebert H. Harris and The Soul Stirrers.
Harris and the Stirrers were pioneers of the hard, shouting gospel style that took hold in the late 1940s. It is said that Harris could out-sing anybody, and that greats such as Sam Cooke were afraid to have a sing-off with Harris. Archie Brownlee and the Harmoneers listened and learned.
Soon, the Jackson Harmoneers were one of the top draws on the gospel circuit, with Brownlee's sweet high tenor and piercing screams driving the crowds insane. If that weren't enough, Brownlee and the group became adept at dynamic theatrics, with Brownlee sometimes leaping from the stage into the audience! Unfortunately, this wasn't Melvin Henderson's style, and he left the group in 1946. He was replaced by Percell Perkins, who not only doubled as their manager, but he wasn't blind!!!
Perkins soon introduced the group to Leon Rene, owner of Excelsior Records. He signed the group, and the subsequent records were released as "The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi (Jackson Harmoneers)". They moved to Coleman Records in 1948, recording several singles, and then in 1950 signed with one of the top gospel labels of the day, Peacock Records. At their first session for Peacock, they recorded "Our Father (Which Art In Heaven)", which sold in such large numbers that it became one of the very, very few gospel singles to hit Top Ten on the R&B charts. The Five Blind Boys were now gospel superstars.
A couple of years later, The Blind Boys of Alabama became popular in the gospel field, and so, to avoid confusion, Brownlee and his group began billing themselves as the ORIGINAL Five Blind Boys (and still appending the group's original name "Jackson Harmoneers" on their record labels). They had many big sellers for Peacock over the years (though none as big as "Our Father"), with Brownlee's piercing screams a wonder to behold. But those screams took a toll on Brownlee. He was prone to respiratory problems, and died from pneumonia on February 8, 1960, at the age of 35.
Take a listen to this record, one of the last that Brownlee recorded, and prepare to be awed. Not only is this one of the loudest, scariest records you'll ever hear, but you'll soon realize that there's only ONE instrument on this record - a piano.
Oh, and try not to blow out your computer speakers.
The Original Five Blind Boys - Someone Watches (Peacock 1797) - 1959