Jimmy Carter said his favorite song is "Amazing Grace."

"Had it not been for amazing grace, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," the musician explained.

More than 70 years ago, singing was all he wanted to do as a blind, black child growing up in the Jim Crow South. While attending the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, he helped form a group that went on to become The Blind Boys of Alabama.

A glee club at the time, the group sang in school auditoriums, churches and for service camps. Sometimes, they even got paid.

"We knew it took money to live, but we just wanted to get out and sing," Carter recalled.

The group wasn't interested in being cooped up in a classroom practicing Braille.

"Our principal ... thought our singing would interfere with our school," Carter explained. "We had to sneak out and come back."

Carter can't remember ever getting caught. But he suspects his teachers knew they were up to something.

"We had a lot of people to encourage us to continue," he said.

But the overprotective school administrator might have wanted to shield the boys from racial tensions at the time.

"It wasn't so good," Carter said. "You couldn't go in certain places. You had to stay in run-down hotels."

Before programs, the group would usually try to stop to get a bite to eat. But most restaurants didn't admit blacks.

"We just went to the grocery store and got bologna and bread," Carter said. "All these challenges -- you just face them head on and work them out."

The traditional gospel tunes the group sang also helped the members stay positive. It's one reason Carter can chuckle at his past.

The Blind Boys toured predominantly black venues and produced hits for the Vee-Jay Records.

"As time passed, the music industry changed," Carter said. Soul and Motown eclipsed gospel music in popularity, but pushed black artists to the top of the charts. The Blind Boys blended contemporary gospel tunes into its repertoire, but for the most part stuck to its traditional roots.

In the 1980s, the group performed in the play "The Gospel at Colonus," which helped it cross over. Grammys, invitations to perform at the White House and recordings with Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and other stars followed.

The group, which has gone through lineup changes during the decades, still tours constantly. Next month, The Blind Boys will perform during a tribute to Prince at Carnegie Hall. Then, the group is off to Australia.

Carter, a founding member who still calls Alabama home, said the group's concert Friday in York might include a little country.

He recently realized his dream to record in Nashville. He grew up listening to country artists including, Jim Reeves. Now, he said he tunes into XM satellite radio to hear hits by George Jones and Merle Haggard.

In 2011, The Blind Boys traveled to Music City to cut its country album "Take The High Road" with guest spots from Hank Williams Jr., Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson.

At one time in Carter's life, it was difficult to imagine white and black artists recording together or a black president. America, he said, has come a long way but still needs to press on. And that's why he plans to keep on doing what he loves doing.

"When I go on the stage," Carter said, "I tell the people that ... I hope we can say something or sing something to help make you feel good."

-- ERIN McCRACKEN,
FlipSide staff

If you go

See The Blind Boys of Alabama 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, 50 N. George St., York. Tickets are $29, $34 and $39. For details and tickets, call 717-846-1111 or visit mystrandcapitol.org.

Online

The Blind Boys of Alabama: www.blindboys.com

Read more celebrity interviews: www.yorkblog.com/flipside/celebrity-interviews