It’s no hyperbole to say the Blind Boys of Alabama are living legends. The original members, including current leader Jimmy Carter, began singing together as kids at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in the late 1930s—more than 70 years ago. From the Jim Crow South and the Civil Rights Movement to performing at the White House for three presidents, the Blind Boys have stayed true to the music they love, blending tight harmonies of early jubilee gospel with innovative improvisations. Their awards have been numerous awards, including five Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
When local bluesman and Blues Under the Bridge veteran Grant Sabin caught wind that we were interviewing the Blind Boys as headliner of this year’s Blues Under the Bridge, he wanted in. Here are highlights from his artist to artist conversation with Ricky McKinnie, accomplished Blind Boys drummer who also tours with the Ricky McKinnie Singers, which he founded in 1978.
Grant Sabin: I’ve been a huge fan of the Blind Boys of Alabama my whole life. You all have been a huge inspiration to me in being fearless on stage and feeling comfortable playing anything from gospel to funk music. Is there anyone who has done that for you?
Ricky McKinnie: Everyone we’ve worked with and all the people who listen to our music drive us to do what we do. As long as there are people listening, we’ll keep making our music for them.
Was there anyone in your family or in the church who inspired you to start singing or was it just natural for you?
My mother, Sarah McKinnie Shivers. I grew up in the church, and singing was just something we did. Her and my father were known as the preaching deacon and the singing sister.
That’s great. I was told you guys have been in the studio working on a new album?
Yeah, we are. We don’t know what we’re going to call it yet, but I think it’s going to be really good.
That’s awesome. I can’t wait to hear it.
[laughs] Me too.
Last year, Booker T. Jones headlined Blues Under the Bridge. I had an opportunity to sit down with him and his wife, and they were very nice. He produced your album Deep River 25 years ago. Do you all still keep in touch?
Yeah, Booker T. is an old friend of ours. We’ve known him for years. We go way back. We collaborate with a lot of the same people, you know: Yim Yames, Bonnie Rait, Gift of Gab.
In 2004 you released one of my all-time favorite albums with Ben Harper, There Will Be a Light. Do you have a favorite experience in all the collaborations you’ve done?
Well, we went into the studio with Ben Harper to record two songs, and we ended up recording a whole album. It was like that, so we enjoyed it very much. We enjoy everything that different artists have brought to the table.
In the 2004 DVD Live at the Apollo, [founding member] George Scott mentioned that the Blind Boys played at the Apollo 40 years earlier. Were you a part of that first rise toward success the Blind Boys experienced?
Well, you know, I’ve been playing drums with the Blind Boys of Alabama for 40 years, and I’ve known them all since I was 4 years old. … I was a house drummer at the Apollo when the Blind Boys played there. I’ve played the Apollo more times than I can count.
That is awesome, Mr. McKinnie. This group has been together for over 70 years, and in that time you have brought gospel music into the spotlight of mainstream music. Do y’all have a mission in your heart that drives all of this success?
We want the people to know that it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do. A disability is nothing but a limitation. It doesn’t stop you or your ability. And if you keep the drive and the sight and keep the faith, everything will work out.
That’s beautiful. One interesting note I read was that the group used to go by a different name until you were billed on a show as the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Yes, we used to be called the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, and then we played a show with another group, and it was billed as The Five Blind Boys of Alabama vs. The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. They were friends of ours.
I’ve always thought those friendly rivalries are so fun. Playing blues with people is like that a lot of the time, like a boxing match or something, but those people end up being really close friends.
Yeah, [laughs]. Music will do that.
Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter are the only remaining founders of the group, and I know Clarence Fountain has been having some health problems. Will he be joining you at Blues Under the Bridge?
No, Clarence will not be joining us, but Jimmy Carter will be there along with myself and the rest of the Blind Boys of Alabama. We’re really looking forward to meeting you and being at the show.
I am really looking forward to meeting you all as well. Before we go, I’m curious as a fan, do you think the Blind Boys of Alabama will continue on for generations?
I believe as long as there are people without sight, with insight, the Blind Boys of Alabama will continue.
That is great news. Because I can tell you for certain that I haven’t had enough of the Blind Boys of Alabama.
[laughs] Neither have we.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Mr. McKinnie. I am really looking forward to meeting you at Blues Under the Bridge in July.
We’re looking forward to it too. And I want the people to know that we don’t like a conservative audience. [laughs] We want to hear you. We like that. We love the people. And make sure the people know when the Boys are back in town.
Blues Under the Bridge
Read more about the Blues Under the Bridge festival in our Summer issue feature “Rails and Wails.” Get Blues Under the Bridge tickets and details here.