Jimmy Carter and some of his schoolmates at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind loved listening to the Golden Gate Quartet on the radio.

There was one catch. They would have to sneak off campus to hear their favorite gospel group because there were no radios at the school.

"They were our idols and figured if they could do it we could do it, too," said Carter, a founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who will kick off the 2017 Rhythm on the River Series, produced by the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.

The concert, which also features opening act MoJoFlo, will begin at starts 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 2, in Bicentennial Park, 233 Civic Center Drive.

The concert is free and open to the public. Food and beverage sales begin at 6:30 p.m.

The Blind Boys of Alabama essentially started their career 73 years ago as Happyland Jubilee Singers, said Carter, the only active member of the original group.

A concert promoter decided to create a friendly rivalry between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Happyland Jubilee Sings, who changed their name to the Blind Boys of Alabama in the late 1940s.

"The name caught on with the people so we kept it," Carter said.

Since then, the group has traveled worldwide, earning five Grammy Awards and performing for presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush when he was supporting son, Jeb Bush, in his bid for the presidency.

Jimmy Carter the musician had high praise for the all of the former presidents, including the former president who shares the same name.

"We met him a couple of times," Carter said. "He is a nice gentleman."

The 85-year-old singer said the group's music is uplifting.

"We are a group that carries a message," he said in a phone interview last week from Birmingham, Alabama, where he was raised and still lives.

"We're trying to bring encouragement to people who are down," Carter said.

"We're trying to bring hope to the hopeless and let them know that God lives and all you have to do is trust him and he'll take care of you."

He said the group's fans often express their gratitude for the group's talent and spiritual base.

"We hear that just about every day," Carter said. "Someone will talk to us and say we appreciate your music, we love your music and you've been an inspiration to us. That makes us feel good to hear compliments like that."

Carter said he will continue singing as long as he is able.

"That's all I know," he said. "But I've enjoyed it."

Rhythm on the River concerts will be held June 23, July 14 and Aug. 25, when a performance from BalletMet concludes the season.

"Free Rhythm on the River performances are a great way to spend a Friday evening with family and friends," said Karen Wiser, program director for the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary