The Blind Boys of Alabama reflect on their unmatched gospel legacy 

Love, heart & soul

Despite the old adage, beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. If that were true, the sound of a violin would be less important than its shape, the taste of honey would matter less than its hue, and the scent of grass would be less evocative than the color of the lawn.

Over the course of a 70-year recording career, The Blind Boys of Alabama have never failed to show us the beauty of the unseen. The five-time Grammy winners — who'll be bringing their full band to this year's Blues Under the Bridge Festival on July 29 — have developed an unparalleled mastery of close harmonies, gospel syncopation and transcendent songwriting. It's an undeniably sublime combination that's proven powerful enough to overcome boundaries of race, religion and nationality.

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Along the way, they've also been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and won the Grammy organization's Lifetime Achievement Award. They've been active in humanitarian causes, from Amnesty International to Martin Luther King Jr. benefits. "He made the supreme sacrifice in the end," co-founder Jimmy Carter would recall decades later, "but from his death, we have seen changes."

The band, meanwhile, has seen musical changes, broadening their audiences and collaborators in much the same way that The Neville Brothers and Fela Kuti did back in the '80s and '90s. The Blind Boys released albums of "duets" with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Solomon Burke and, most improbably, Lou Reed, in 2009. Two years later, they recorded a full country album with Willie Nelson and Vince Gill. And two years after that, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon produced their I'll Find a Way album.

The Blind Boys' origins can be traced back to 1939, when a half-dozen 9-year-old boys began singing together as the The Happy Land Jubilee Singers at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind. After the accidental shooting death of lead singer Velma Bozman Traylor in 1947, the group was rechristened the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. They released their first single, "I Can See Everybody's Mother (But I Can't See Mine)," the following year on Veejay Records.

Amazingly, three of the group's original members continued to record and perform together until the death of George Scott in 2005, at the age of 75. That left co-founders Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter to carry on the Blind Boys tradition. And though Fountain is currently taking a well-deserved break from touring, he and Carter are clearly at the helm on the group's forthcoming album, Almost Home, which will be released on Aug. 18.

We recently caught up with the group's second lead tenor, Eric "Ricky" McKinnie. Born in 1952, he's a relative newcomer to the Blind Boys, having first joined the group as a drummer in 1990. McKinnie grew up in Atlanta's Carver Homes public housing project, played drums in the Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and went on to join the Georgia gospel group Troy Ramey & The Soul Searchers while still in his teens. At the age of 25, while playing in the Texas-based Gospel Keynotes, he lost his sight to glaucoma. That same year, the Keynotes released Devotion, its first platinum album.

In the following interview, McKinnie reflects on the legacy of a group that's changed the course of gospel music.

Indy: How did you originally hook up with the Blind Boys? What brought you into the fold?

Eric McKinnie: I've known the Blind Boys since I was about 4 years old. My mom is a gospel singer herself. And so Clarence Fountain called me, and asked if I want to go to Australia and play drums and sing background for the group. And that's how I ended up being in the Blind Boys of Alabama.

And you've since moved up from the drums to become one of the lead singers. When did that come about?

Well, about five years ago, one of our members became ill, and he's since passed away. So that's what brought me up front, to fill in for him singing second tenor lead and backing vocals.

You mentioned that you first met the Blind Boys when you were 4. What are your earliest memories of the group?

Well, I remember, back when I was about 8 years old, going to the City Auditorium and seeing The Blind Boys and the Nightingales singing. And that touched me in a strange kind of way.

How different was their music from what you would hear in your church?

In church, you're hearing more choir and solo singing. But the quartet brought it to a whole different level.

So growing up in a gospel household, who were your family's favorites, other than the singers and musicians who played in your church?

We listened to the Soul Stirrers, and of course The Blind Boys, and also The Nightingales.

Tell me about The Nightingales.

The Nightingales had one of the greatest lead singers that ever lived. His name was Julius Cheeks — Reverend Julius Cheeks — and they sang good gospel music. They were great.

I once interviewed Clarence Fountain about gospel artists moving into the secular realm of soul music. And I remember him telling me that Sam Cooke had left the Soul Stirrers to play the devil's music. He said that Sam was the son of a preacher, so he knew exactly what he was doing. Do you think Clarence still feels that way, or did I just catch him on a bad day?

I think Clarence was just rambling, really. [Laughs.] I don't think he meant it that way. But the whole thing is that Sam Cooke was a great guy. He used to come and read to The Blind Boys as they were riding down the highway a lot of times. He liked westerns, and The Blind Boys did too. Sam was a great contributor to keeping them alive and well. So yeah, you caught him on a bad day.

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The Blind Boys have incorporated a lot of different musical styles on more recent albums, but the lyrics have always stayed true to the group's gospel roots. What are the elements that need to be present for a song to be considered gospel music?

Well, as long as the song has meaning, and it touches somebody, that's the main thing about a gospel song. And it has to have a message. It doesn't necessarily have to say "Jesus" or "God" in it, but it's all about love. And so a gospel song talks about love. We don't say 'my baby,' but it all comes back to love.

The group has also collaborated with some very diverse artists, from Valerie June to Peter Gabriel to Ben Harper. What common traits does the group look for when deciding to work with outside musicians?

Well, as long as it's good clean music telling a story that people can relate to, that's what we like. Ben Harper was one of the ones that came here to sing two or three songs and ended up doing a whole CD. He sang rock and roll. He's sung blues. He has this diversity of styles, so that's one of the things that he brought to us.

If you were to choose just one track from the upcoming album that will mean the most to fans, which would it be?

The track that says "Let my mamma live till I get grown." It's a song that tells about Jimmy Carter's life, how he asked the Lord to let his mother live until he gets grown, and don't leave him down here alone. It's gospel, but it's also got sort of a Delta blues feel.

I also wanted to ask about some of the themes that unite the new songs. I know that Jimmy and Clarence co-wrote the title track "Almost Home," and there's also the cover of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." And it reminds me of how Merle Haggard, in his final years, just poured everything he had, musically and emotionally, into his performances. Do you get a sense that something similar is happening with this group now?

Well, I think they were giving it all they had back in the day, and we're still trying to give it all we have now. What's from the heart reaches the heart, and we just sing out from our soul.

Do you expect that The Blind Boys will carry on as a group after its remaining original members have passed, and in what way would that happen?

Well, as long as I'm around — and as long as there are people who love The Blind Boys like I do — we'll continue on. The individual members are important, but the name also means a whole lot to me. Because the Blind Boys have shown people that a disability doesn't have to be a handicap. So as long as people realize that it's not about what you can't do — it's about what you can do that makes the difference — there'll always be a Blind Boys of Alabama.


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