Blind Boys and Musslewhite bring gospel and blues to Pepperdine University

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Five-time GRAMMY Award winners and living legends, the Blind Boys of Alabama, with special guest Charlie Musselwhite, performed at the Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine University on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Photos courtesy George Harris/Jazz Weekly.

A joyous performance brought the audience to their feet 

Five-time Grammy Award winners the Blind Boys of Alabama, joined by Grammy Award winner and Blues Hall of Famer Charlie Musselwhite, brought traditional jubilee gospel, and stirring and melancholy blues to Pepperdine University on Jan. 17. 

Beginning at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the late 1930s, The Blind Boys brought over 80 years of gospel history to the Smothers Theatre.

The theater hosted a full house of music lovers to experience the show on Tuesday evening.

The show began with the guitar slides of Charlie Musslewhite, who performed original songs such as “Blues Up The River” and “Stingaree” as well as blues classics such as “Pea Vine Blues.” 

He was then joined by Blind Boys of Alabama Musical Director and lead guitarist Joey Williams who backed him up in a performance of his song “Drifting From Town to Town.”

Musslewhite then asked Williams if he could accompany him in a song for the crowd, to which Williams said it would be an honor. Together they performed a rhythmic and soulful rendition of Inez Andrews’ gospel classic, “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain.”

Williams said that although he has known Musslewhite for many years, playing with him is a special occasion, and he enjoyed the opportunity.

“Playing solo with Charlie was a really big thing to me,” Williams said. “For me to actually play with him, just me and him, it’s an honor that I can’t even explain.”

Following an intermission, the crowd was greeted by Jimmy Carter, founding member and frontman of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who asked the audience if they were ready to be happy. 

“We hope we can say something or sing something that can lift you up and make you feel good,” he said. 

The charming and charismatic frontman, 90, knew how to make the audience smile and laugh. He humbly joked about the group’s success.

“We’ve been nominated for another Grammy, which is good. It’s just good to be nominated even if you don’t win,” Carter said. “In case we do not win, it won’t hurt so bad because we already won five!” 

The audience was immersed in the performance by the Blind Boys that featured gospel classic “Do Lord.” The audience began clapping in unison, accompanying the band in the song’s beat. 

The band followed with an impassioned cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky.”

The band was then rejoined by Musslewhite who now graced the stage with his signature and multi-award winning harmonica ability to accompany the Blind Boys in performing some of their most recognizable songs.

They performed songs like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” which was featured in Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail,” and “Way Down In The Hole,” which was featured in the HBO television series, “The Wire.”

The group closed the night with an explosive and exuberant performance of “Amazing Grace” that saw Carter get up and, with the help of the band manager, walk around the theater to sing with the audience. Much like a Sunday morning church worship, the audience rose to their feet, clapped their hands, danced and cheered as the band created a loud and positive energy. 

Williams said the boys have performed at Pepperdine University before, and the experience is always a special one. He said the audience’s energy brings the boys joy.

“Pepperdine brings it every time,” Williams said. “The audience was so great, they gave it [energy] back to us. They’re up on their feet, they’re making noise, we love that.”

Steve Ray Ladson, bassist and background vocalist for the Blind Boys, said it means the world to him and the Blind Boys to spread the gospel to the West Coast and across the world. 

He also said it meant a lot to him personally to play with these artists that he grew up listening to.

“It’s phenomenal,” Ladson said. “It’s a dream come true to be touring, living the life playing gospel with legends.” 

Gary Clausen attended the event with his 20-year-old son, and said the favorite part of the show for him was sharing the experience with him.

“I’m exposing my son to the legends of different genres of music because once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” Clausen said. “He gets to listen to these important gospels, spirituals and real blues. It’s important that the younger generation gets to really experience this.”

Pepperdine will next host pianist Yin Li on Sunday, Jan. 29, as part of the university’s Recital Series. Tickets can be purchased on arts.pepperdine.edu.