In the 1930s four blind students at the Piney Woods School south of Jackson—Lawrence Abrams, Archie Brownlee, Joseph Ford, and Lloyd Woodard—began singing together as the Cotton Blossom Singers, performing sacred and popular songs at fund-raising events for the school. Alan Lomax recorded them on 9 March 1937 for the Library of Congress. By the early 1940s the group performed religious music as the Jackson Harmoneers, singing in the ensemble jubilee style first popularized in the late nineteenth century by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. By 1942 the original quartet was joined by Melvin Henderson.
After moving to Chicago in the mid-1940s, the group became known as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Some sources claim that a promoter billed them alongside the Five Blind Boys of Alabama to market their performances as a competition. Robert H. Harris, lead singer of the popular Soul Stirrers, was a major influence on the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi in this period. His “hard gospel” style featured emotive sounds that made full use of his vocal range, and Brownlee, the Blind Boys’ lead singer, had one of the most powerful voices in gospel music, able to growl, shout, and moan to provide a counterpoint to gospel rhythm. According to Anthony Heilbut, Brownlee’s singing and stage presence made him “king of the road with his bloodcurdling shrieks and his sixteen-bar-blues tributes to Mother”—for example, “Mother, Don’t Worry If Your Child Should Go to War” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning till Your Child Comes Home.” Brownlee could also sing with “an unresolved falsetto shriek that conjured up images of witchcraft or bedlam.” Brownlee’s style was an early influence on Ray Charles and later soul singers.
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi achieved national popularity in the late 1940s, and their 1950 bluesy recording of “Our Father” for Peacock Records became one of the first gospel records to hit Billboard’s R&B charts. Rev. Percell Perkins, a hard gospel shouter like Brownlee and the group’s business manager, began performing with the Blind Boys during this period.
Brownlee died of pneumonia in New Orleans on 8 February 1960, when he was only thirty-five years old. Roscoe Robinson replaced Brownlee as lead singer, and the group also included Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax, Rev. Sammy Lewis, Rev. George Warren, and Tiny Powell. The group toured through the 1990s.
- The Best of the Five Blind Boys (CD 2006)
- Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (2002)