The Mississippi Blind Boys — front row, from left, Terry Davis, Albany native Willie Moody and Darnell King; back row, from left, Leroy White, Curtis Foster and Sandy Foster — will release “Traditions,” their first album of new material in more than two decades, in February. (Special photo by Adrian Jenkins)
ALBANY — Darnell King laughs at the memory.
“My mother had CDs of the Mississippi Blind Boys when I was growing up, and I remember singing along, pretending I was part of the group, when she would play them,” King said.
Now King is part of the storied gospel pioneers, helping carry on a tradition that began in 1936. He, brothers Sandy and Curtis Foster, Leroy White, Terry Davis and Albany native Willie Moody are the latest incarnation of the Grammy award-nominated group that began with students from the Piney Wood Mississippi School for the Blind.
And, lest anyone get the idea the current Mississippi Blind Boys are a knockoff bent upon capitalizing on the group’s historic name, Sandy Foster puts an immediate end to that.
“I sung with four of the five original members of the group for years,” Foster said during a recent conference call with all six of the Mississippi Blind Boys. “I know the complete history of the group; I was there with them when they started out as the Cotton Blossom Singers. I was with them when they changed their name to the Jackson Harmoneers, and I was there when they became the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
“We all didn’t really like that name, being black and being called ‘boys,’ but it became so popular with the public we just accepted it.”
With his 43 years of experience in the band, Sandy Foster is the de facto leader of the newly dubbed Mississippi Blind Boys. But the six-member combo is a collaborative effort. In fact, the group’s latest single, “If We Had Love,” was written by Moody.
“I grew up listening to the Five Mississippi Blind Boys on (pioneering radio owner/personality) Doc Suttles’ ‘Gospel Train’ program,” Moody said. “This group has brought me so much joy in my life, and to be a part of it is such a tremendous privilege.”
For the first time in more than two decades, the Mississippi Blind Boys have been in the studio putting the finishing touches on an 11-song album (“Traditions”) of new material, which is due for release in February. And while “If We Had Love” is not due to be officially released until Jan. 21, it is burning up the gospel charts already. One hundred fifty-nine stations and counting have already added the single to their play lists, including Frank and Sonny on local station WWVO (90.7 FM) and stations in Thomasville, Moultrie, Valdosta and Tallahassee, Fla.
To help spread the word about their triumphant return, the Mississippi Blind Boys have signed a management deal with Albany-based X-tratainment Inc. That company’s CEO, Thomas Swain, said working with the group is a dream assignment.
“This is so huge for us,” Swain said. “Frankly, it’s like we developed our company for this moment. We’re using all the skills we’ve developed through trial and error over the past seven years to make this happen.
“We have help in promotions (Edmondson Communications) and publicity (Tehillah Enterprises) as well as tour and road management, but we’re excited to have put a $6 million investment package together for this project. Now, it’s about getting the word out.”
“Traditions” may be the Mississippi Blind Boys’ most adventurous project yet, delving into areas of secular music as well as the traditional gospel that defines their roots.
“Our music will always be rooted and grounded in the things that this group has done since its beginnings,” Curtis Foster said. “But we do really branch out on the latest project. We get into a lot of different types of music, from traditional to contemporary. We work with a choir and a lot of quartet sounds, do some things we really haven’t done in the past.”
While the Mississippi Blind Boys, who are about to embark on an extended tour in support of “Traditions,” are excited about their new project, the group’s members are also cognizant of their history.
“I think it’s an honor to be able to follow in the footsteps of such musical pioneers,” Davis said. “Despite their blindness, (original group members) proved that they were able to do musically what anyone without their disability could do. And even though we too are blind, we feel that the Lord has given us instruments that we can fully use to show our God is a good God.”
Adds White, the baby of the group: “It’s just an honor to be on the same stage with Sandy and Curtis and these other guys. I think we all take our blindness in stride; it’s just the way things are. We’ve all taken the stance that we’re going to let God lead us and just go from there.”
Digital downloads of “If We Had Love” will be available Jan. 21 on iTunes and all other digital outlets.