Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Blind Boys of Alabama: Down in New Orleans

The Blind Boys of Alabama

At the 1990 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the hometown’s top gospel act, the Zion Harmonizers, was doing its customary second-Sunday set in the Gospel Tent, when the group’s leader Sherman Washington called up a guest from the grassy backstage. Aaron Neville climbed the wooden steps in white slacks, a red-knit shirt and shades, seized the mic and sang Sam Cooke’s “He’s So Wonderful” in a honeyed tenor that fluttered up into falsetto scatting as if Neville were Cooke himself and the Harmonizers were the Soul Stirrers.

It was a thrilling moment, and it reminded everyone that black gospel music has always been lurking behind the jazz and R&B that New Orleans is best known for. The city is, after all, the birthplace of Mahalia Jackson, and the jazz funerals where most of the local horn players and drummers cut their teeth are religious ceremonies. Neville, like many local singers, found himself pulled between gospel and R&B, as much as Cooke ever did. New Orleans deserves its reputation as a capital of hedonism, but if the greasy dance rhythms of its funk and Dixieland weren’t countered by the earnest ache of gospel, the city’s R&B and jazz wouldn’t carry as much weight as they do.

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published