Blind Boys of Alabama
Blind Boys of Alabama Interview
You notice two things about
Ricky McKinnie when you first meet him. First he is a good looking man.
Secondly as the conversation unfolds you notice what a positive and caring
individual McKinnie is. I met him at his Toronto hotel room a few hours
before Blind Boys of Alabama were scheduled to perform in concert at one
of Canada's premier venues Massey Hall. McKinnie is the drummer for the
legendary gospel group. He looks debonair sporting a grey goatee. Today
he is dressed in a tank top and you can see that he is a well built man.
It is McKinnie's positive
attitude combined with his faith that sustained him when in 1975 glaucoma
took his sight away. He said, "I never think about being a blind person.
I never sit back and think about being a sightless person. My motto is
I'm not blind, I just can't see. A lot of people want to know what does
that mean. When you are blind you have no direction. I am well directed
and I am on my way up."
Although McKinnie has only
been with the group seventeen years (only?) he believes the group's legacy
has been, "We have shown the world that a disability doesn't have to be
a handicap. It is not about what you can't do. It's about what you can
do. People are encouraged and inspired to find their way back to God because
they realize nothing is impossible. The only thing they have to do is believe
and you will receive. That is the reason why the Blind Boys of Alabama
is as popular as they are today. God has shown favor on the music of Blind
Boys of Alabama."
McKinnie said the reason
for the group's longevity is no secret. "If you want to be Biblical about
it, the Bible says, 'If I (Christ) be lifted up I will draw all men unto
me.' That is what happened to the Blind Boys of Alabama. We have been out
there singing the gospel and carrying the good news. God is just doing
what He said He would do. He said, 'If you will be faithful over a few
things He will make you master over even greater things.'"
The original group got together
in 1939 and until last year's passing of George Scott still had three of
the original members. The two remaining active members are Clarence Fountain
and Jimmy Carter. The original Blind Boys were referred to as The Five
Blind Boys of Alabama. In addition to Carter, Fountain and McKinnie, today's
Blind Boys of Alabama consists of Joey Williams, Bobby Butler, Tracy Pierce
and Bishop Billy Bowers.
"My mind has always been
open to go wherever the Lord will send me. The first album that I
recorded on my own was called Here I Am. The main statement was, 'I will
go anywhere that You want me to go and I will do anything that you want
me to do.' Here I am today doing what I am doing," he said chuckling.
Prior to joining the Blind
Boys of Alabama, McKinnie had a successful career drumming for The Gospel
Keynotes of "Jesus You've Been Good To Me" fame. He said fondly of the
experience, "We did a lot of good things with that group."
It was following his tenure
with The Gospel Keynotes and while he was engaged in a solo career that
McKinnie received a telephone call from Blind Boys of Alabama founding
and still active member Clarence Fountain. McKinnie mapped out the connection
for me, "I had an opportunity to play with the Blind Boys back in the 'seventies
when I was on the road with another group out of Texas (The Gospel Keynotes)."
He picked up the story again, "They (BBA) were getting ready to go to Australia
and needed somebody to play drums and sing background. He (Fountain) asked
me if I would mind doing it. I went to Australia. Then I helped them on
and off. Here I am today," he said.
McKinnie's southern charm
extended to his describing the cross pollination of Blind Boys of Alabama's
music in recent years. "We don't mind singing songs with people who don't
sing in the same genre as us. It's just like having dinner, you have the
vegetables, the meat, the salad and you have desert. It all goes together
to make one big meal," he said, laughing. The group has performed and recorded
with people such as Robert Randolph and The Family Band, Aaron Neville,
Peter Gabriel, Prince, and Aretha Franklin. McKinnie said the Blind Boys
of Alabama's ability to perform with other artists makes it possible for
their music to be heard by a much broader audience.
He noted that despite primarily
being a gospel group, the singers' ability to adapt to other genres of
music has provided them with an opportunity to reach out to people from
all walks of life. "When you show people that you are not just all
one side, just a gospel group, you are not just a Blues artist, you aren't
just a Jazz artist but you're an artist and the Blind Boys are artists,"
Despite opportunities such
as recording with Jars of Clay ("Nothing But The Blood") that was contributed
music to a Michael W Smith movie The Second Chance, the Blind Boys of Alabama
have not forgotten why those opportunities exist. "Whenever we talk about
doing a song we listen to the words of the song. Every song has a message
and the messages in those songs are positive," he said.
Since it was February and
we were celebrating Black history month, I posed a question to McKinnie
concerning the importance of today's musicians of color remembering their
heritage. Although his answer included the importance of remembering that
the roots of gospel music rest with those who were enslaved, his answer
was much more encompassing than I expected. He believes that much of the
music we enjoy in the United States owes its existence to the African American
presence in the church. He said, "It is important to know that without
the church none of this might ever have happened."
For their part, Blind Boys
of Alabama were recognized in 1994 for their contributions to music. They
were presented with the NEA National Heritage Fellowship which is awarded
to, "Artists whose contributions, primarily through teaching, advocacy,
organizing and preserving important repertoires, have greatly benefited
their artistic tradition." ( www.nea.gov/honors)
Today McKinnie wears two
hats with Blind Boys of Alabama. He also acts as the tour manager. If that
doesn't keep him busy enough he also has a radio program that airs every
Sunday morning from nine to ten a.m. on WYZE in Atlanta.
As our time together drew
to a close he said something that best sums up the way Ricky McKinnie lives
his life, "If you can dream the dream, keep the faith and work the work
everything is going to be all right."
Then the man with the great
big warm heart handed me his business card and said, "If there is ever
anything I can do for you write or phone me." It wasn't so much what he
said but how he said that made me respect this southern gentleman even
By Joe Montague, exclusive
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer. His ministry is dedicated to the memory
of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18.
All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.