Illustration by Don Morris
“I WAS IN A DARK PLACE.
"When I started going blind, man, it just took my heart away. The doctor said it was glaucoma, and that I had waited too long to act on it.
"I stayed off the road and didn't perform for almost three years. I wouldn't go further than my front porch in Pensacola. I was scared to get run over or that somebody's going to rob me.''
This was the '90s. His name was Bobby Purify then. He had taken the name 20 years before, when he joined James Purify in one of soul music's classic acts. For roughly a decade James and Bobby Purify played the Apollo in New York and the Howard in Washington, D.C., and toured England and Europe. Their version of I'm Your Puppet, which James Purify had earlier recorded with another man singing harmony, was a hit again, here and overseas. (That first man's name wasn't really Bobby Purify either. The act's producer just thought James Purify was the greatest soul name he'd ever heard, so he told each singer who joined the Florida duo: "You're Bobby Purify.'')
After the act broke up Bobby worked as a solo act for roughly 10 years, recorded a Grammy-nominated gospel album — and lost his sight.
Today, at 72, he's singing all over the world again, but he goes by a different name. As he enters theaters and concert halls, he wears a black leather car coat with white lettering on the back that reads:
Five Time Grammy Award Winners
2009 Lifetime Achievement Award
On the front are the initials BB, for Blind Boys. More white letters say:
Ben Moore, Lead Singer
On Saturday, when the Blind Boys of Alabama play the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in Vinoy Park, Moore will be on the far right as you face the stage, seated in a row of four folding chairs. He'll thump his right fist, the one holding the microphone, on his thigh, keeping time and singing baritone and tenor harmonies, then stand to take frequent solos. He's thinner than Bobby was; his hair is gray, the moustache, goatee and soul patch a little whiter. Like the other Blind Boys he wears black wraparound sunglasses.
You'll be struck by his deep Southern soul timbre; you might hear a little bit of Sam Moore (no relation) of Sam and Dave, the other great soul duo. Like Sam's, Ben's voice carries more clarity than grit or rasp; they're singers, not shouters. And if you don't know the Blind Boys, the world's pre-eminent gospel act, when you hear their bodily instruments blend power and grace, you'll understand that, as this lead singer says: "We are a mighty group.''
He has escaped that trap of fear.
"Now, I fly all over the world by myself,'' Moore told me in his Pensacola living room a while back. "I could get up right now, take my cane and walk clear up to the avenue.''
Since joining the Blind Boys in 2006, "I done won a Grammy, and I've sung for the first black president.''
Moore credits the Lord, of course. Yet there was a human element at work as well. His way out began with an unexpected phone call:
"Bobby Purify, this is Ray Charles.''
• • •
BENJAMIN DILLARD MOORE was the lead singer for the Echoes of Zion, a prominent gospel group in Atlanta in the 1940s and '50s. He taught Ben Jr. to play the guitar and at about 14, the son began performing with the Echoes. He made $5 a day playing with a traveling carnival for a while, and then — still underage — gigged at Atlanta clubs like the Peacock and the Fox.
The Rounders, which he joined in the early 1960s, was an R&B group with a strange second identity: "We were the 'Black Beatles,' '' Moore remembers, laughing. "We would do our first show singing R&B, take a break, then we'd run out in these blond wigs and sing 'Oh, yeah, I'll tell you something . . . ' and the people went to howling and screaming.''
A little later James Purify and his producer, Papa Don Schroeder, were looking for a new Bobby Purify. Mighty Sam McClain told them to check out the Rounder backing him up at Abe's 506 Club in Pensacola, a stop on the chitlin circuit.
"You know when you meet that person where it seems like you were meant to be together?'' Moore asks. "That's how it was with James and me. I asked him, 'Man, do you know When Something Is Wrong With My Baby? ’ And he came up and sang it with me, and our voices were blending so close, man, it was beautiful.
"We got together, started recording, and boom, it just took off after that. We'd get out there on stage, sing harmony together and we had people crying in those places. There were a lot of duos out there at that time — Sam and Dave, Mel and Tim, the Righteous Brothers — but James and I were burning the trails, I tell you.''
• • •
AFTER HE BEGAN TO GO BLIND and stopped performing, Moore lost his house. Friends took him in, and "I even spent a few nights under the bridge down under Jordan Street,'' he remembers. "I could see a little bit out of my right eye then, like tunnel vision. That was scary, but the Lord brought me through it all right.''
Nick Dotson, a drummer, also blind, bought Moore a guitar and helped him get local gigs. Dotson says the singer had no clue about living without vision. "He was fumbly blind, as I call it. He'd get disoriented on stage. One time he fell and crashed into my drum kit.'' But Moore wouldn't get any help.
Dotson sold and supported software for the blind, and one of his longtime clients was Ray Charles. "I told Ray about Ben and his predicament.''
So Charles called from his Los Angeles home.
"He told me not to be afraid,'' Moore says, "and not to give up my career. He said, 'You don't need no eyes to have soul.' He really encouraged me.''
Dotson guesses the love was considerably tougher. "I think Ray told him, 'Get up off your a--.' ''
Moore smiles and admits, "Yeah, it was like that. He told me, 'Don't sit your a-- around, you've got a voice, use it!' And you know what? I think his words pulled me out of that deep thing that I was in, that fear where I wouldn't even leave the house.''
Moore began working with Independence for the Blind of West Florida, a nonprofit in Pensacola. John O'Dillon, the director of vocational rehabilitation, helped him learn to perform daily chores like cooking for himself. Moore wasn't the easiest client: "He didn't want to climb up the baby steps. He was used to hitting the big time,'' O'Dillon says.
But he took to the cane.
"The guy from the blind school got me out on the sidewalk, held my wrist with the cane and said, 'Now start walking,' " Moore recalls. "I went about two blocks and I didn't step off the curb, didn't stumble. After I had that white stick, you couldn't stop me.''
In 2005, he cut a Bobby Purify comeback album, Better to Have It, produced by renowned songwriter-producer Dan Penn. The following year he heard that one of the Blind Boys, Clarence Fountain, was coming off the road because of health problems. Friends got him to New Orleans.
"I went over to House of Blues, where they were trying out two or three blind guys. We sang There Must Be a Heaven Somewhere and two or three others,'' Moore says. "Then Jimmy Carter — he's the boss man of the Blind Boys — said, 'Man, what other keys can you sing in?' I said, 'Call it,' and he went to calling out keys and I sang in every one, no problem. After all those years I've sung myself into a real tight, formed voice. I really listen to myself, and I don't go sharp and I don't go flat. They hired me that night.''
• • •
AT A CHARLOTTE GIG IN FEBRUARY, Moore stands up early in the first song, Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready, and sings out, "All you need is faith to hear the diesels running . . . "
Then he improvises, jumping ahead and then lagging just behind the beat; going silent and letting the background vocals take over briefly; then powering back in over the others.
When the lyric moves to "I believe'' he taps his chest with his off-hand and adds: "Right here in my heart.''
There's a chill coming off the concrete floor, though, and as soon as Moore sits down he starts coughing. That continues during the whole set.
"Congestive heart failure,'' he explains later.
After the last song, Amazing Grace, Moore, Carter, Ricky McKinnie and Paul Beasley file off the stage, each man walking with a hand on the forward man's shoulder, and the fifth, sighted member, Joey Williams, leading the gospel train. As they step down, Moore tells me, "I just may be getting too old for this.''
How long can he keep this up then? "Until I drop on stage.''
Back in Pensacola a week later, he has regathered his strength.
"For the rest of my life, man. Singing's all I know, and I love making people laugh and cry and jump up and shout."
• • •
THE LATE BENJAMIN MOORE SR. would be proud for many reasons, including this one: "A long time ago my daddy told me, 'You know, you make me mad at you.'
"I said: 'Why, what's going on, Dad?'
"He said, 'I taught you how to play and sing. Then I go and pick up an album with your face on it, and it says Bobby Purify. That ain't your name. Why are you doing that to me?' "
The son explained that it was simply the best opportunity to make a living. "Daddy understood it, but he never did forget it.''
The son has been asked to perform again as Bobby Purify, including recently by his former partner. But he's not going back, not even to reunite with James and reclaim "that brothering thing we had.'' He has too many people depending on him now, he says.
"Besides, I'm just not Bobby Purify anymore.
"I'm Ben Moore.''
Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed. John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing in the undergraduate and creative writing MFA programs at the University of Tampa