In my business, sometimes you walk down the street, get offered a show ticket and end up observing music students from the Oklahoma School of the Blind as they experience phenomenal gospel music from the Blind Boys of Alabama.
At least that’s what happens if you are lucky.
Wednesday evening, I received a last-minute ticket to the Tower Theatre for the performances of Irma Thomas and the Blind Boys of Alabama. While I had heard of Irma Thomas — the Soul Queen of New Orleans — I was more familiar with the Blind Boys, a gospel group founded in 1939 by men with visual impairments.
As I walked through the parking lot, I noticed a school bus parked in the back. I wondered to myself which school had loaded up students for the concert, but when I read the name on the side, everything started to click: Oklahoma School for the Blind.
What a perfect fit, I thought.
‘There’s no auto-tune there’
As expected, the night’s performers sounded incredible. I’m not a music writer, and if I have to explain the appeal of soul-soothing gospel songs then we probably better part ways right here. But the Blind Boys of Alabama inspired Tower Theatre patrons in a manner that the last fellas I saw on that stage could only dream of.
When the music stopped, I scanned the crowd for students of the Oklahoma School for the Blind, an important state institution in Muskogee that Helen Keller visited in 1915. They were grouped in the middle of the theater, their tickets provided — I later learned — by a donor to the school.
Eventually, the school’s band director, Chris Ferrell, connected me with a pair of students outside the theater.
“They were amazing. Really outstanding,” 10th grader Dee William said of the Blind Boys of Alabama. “They are great singers. I can tell they have an original voice. There’s no auto-tune there.”
By referencing “auto-tune,” 15-year-old William made me realize how much had changed since Jimmy Carter, the 86-year-old Blind Boys founder, pursued his studies at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. On the other hand, William focused on something they have in common.
“It’s relatable that they have visual problems,” William said. “They’re blind. It’s inspiring, it really is.”
‘It enhances our experience’
Carter and his group-mates met with William and his classmates before Wednesday’s show. The connection was made by Tower Theatre managing partner Stephen Tyler whose mother, Noel Tyler, is the director of the Department of Rehabilitation Services, which oversees the Oklahoma School for the Blind.
The OSB’s jazz band has been crowned 2A champion two years in a row, and school staff said Wednesday’s concert was an excellent reward.
“The students work hard all year long, coming in early before school to rehearse, and logging late nights performing around the state,” said Ferrell in a provided quote. “It was great to see them so inspired and energized after the concert.”
William said band is the big activity on campus.
“It’s like the sport there,” William said. “You know, you have football games, but we have our band and our band concerts.”
Jillian Matthews, an OSB student, told me she had not heard of the Blind Boys of Alabama previously.
“You can tell that they have their heart in their music,” said the 16-year-old Matthews.
She explained that she was born with aphakia, meaning her eyes do not have lenses.
“I think it enhances our experience because we’re in the music,” Matthews said. “We’re not focused on looking, so we’re just hearing it. All of our attention is focused on hearing it.”