Thursday, November 24, 2016

Tell Everybody the Blind Boys are On Their Way

photo courtesy of

by Susan Kepecs
The Blind Boys of Alabama – deacons of R&B-imbued, old fashioned hard gospel – bring the good news to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, Dec. 1.  And if there was ever a time when we needed some good news, this is it.  You know what I mean.  
When the Blind Boys started out, times were even worse.  The original singers were pre-teens when they began their career at a segregated institution for the blind in Talladega, Alabama.  The year was 1939 – the Jim Crow South at the tail end of the Great Depression and the start of WWII.  These conditions, plus the weighted legacy of black American history and the young men’s tremendous talents, gave rise to one of the deepest, most soulful sounds in the world.   
The Blind Boys appear on this tour with emerging gospel / R&B singer Liz Vice (, whose rootsy music, honed in Portland, Oregon in better days (she’s 33, but she only started singing a few years ago and just launched her first album, There’s a Light, on the obscure Ramseur label last year) promises sparkling complement to the Blind Boys’ ageless resonance. 
The Blind Boys of Alabama started out as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, known for their tight, jubilee-style harmonies carried over from nineteenth century spirituals, but there’s no permanent record of those early tunes.  A decade later, though, they were recording – and they were among the originators of the R&B-based, back beat driven, irresistable hard gospel sound you might know better, unless you grew up in the black church, from those beloved secular recordings of the ‘60s by the likes of the Staple Singers, or Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Here’s a gorgeous (pirated off the internet, so please forgive any ads that pop up) Blind Boys track from around 1948

 – and here’s how I remember them from Chicago soul radio station WVON, 1450 on your AM dial, in the mid-‘60s, when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak.

This video dates to 1965, the year Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act.  Yes, that law, the one the conservative Supreme Court, an artifact of the W. Bush years, essentially gutted in 2013, leading to a wave of new voter restrictions in states across the country, including our own ).
Around the turn of the new century the Blind Boys of Alabama hooked up with British rocker and world music mogul Peter Gabriel – a partnership that’s opened up vast new avenues and audiences, and netted them five Grammys for Best Traditional Gospel plus a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.  The group’s done Tom Waits tunes; it’s worked with a diverse array of secular musicians including Taj Majal, Willie Nelson, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Running with the mainstream lends a subtle, updated edge to their sound – drum kit, more guitars – but the Blind Boys’ gospel heart and soul are miraculously intact. 
Only one of the original Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, still tours with the band.  The rest of its members cross-cut generations.  I had the great good fortune to speak with Rickie McKinnie, blind singer and the group’s former drummer (he joined the vocal heart of the band in 2012) on the phone last week. 

CulturalOyster: I think Jimmy Carter is the only original member of the band who still performs – how is Clarence Fountain [the legendary leader of the original group] doing? 

McKinnie: Clarence is still alive and well in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  He’s not traveling any more, he’s on dialysis.  But he keeps up with everything we do.  Jimmy Carter is the only original member still traveling.  But I’ve been close to the group for 40 years and a member for 28.  I met them when I was four.  My mother, Sarah McKinnie, sang gospel with the Reverend Gene Martin, who used to travel with the Blind Boys back in the ‘50s.  I was born in 1952, and I met Clarence in ’56.   

CulturalOyster: You’re actually from Georgia, not Alabama.  Tell me about your history before you joined the Blind Boys, and how you came to be a member of the group.

McKinnie:  I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.  My career started with Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers out of Atlanta.  And then I was the Gospel Keynotes from Tyler, Texas.  We were awarded a gold record for a song entitled “Jesus Been Good to Me” in 1975.  And then I had my own group, the Rickie McKinnie Singers of Atlanta.  My mom still sings with them.  If you want to know more, go to my website,

CulturalOyster:  I recently intervewed Bishop Jones, of the Jones Family Singers.  I asked him if he sees gospel as part of the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights.  His mission, he said, is entirely dedicated to spreading the good news.  But right now our civil rights are being trampled in new ways.  Do the Blind Boys, with their history of being involved with Martin Luther King, keep on pushing?

McKinnie: We’re still going in the same direction.  We still sing traditional gospel.  It’s always been about the good news.  We realize that if you keep the faith God will make a way for you.  We’re not dealing with politics, but right now the world is going through a transition.  We sing a song about that, “There Will Never be any Peace Until God is Seated at the Conference Table.”  It features Paul Beasley, our tenor – he’s the best in black gospel, often imitated but never duplicated. 

CulturalOyster: Since the group became a Grammy-winning phenomenon it reaches a way different audience than the soul radio stations of the 1960s.  Does that change what the group does?

McKinnie:  No.  We believe that people need people and workin’ together works.

CulturalOyster: Your show in Madison is billed as a Christmas tour, so I guess it’s based on your 2014 holiday album Talkin’ Christmas [Sony Masterworks] that features Taj Mahal [on guitar and harmonica, and he sings on a couple of tracks]. Liz Vice is coming with you instead of Taj Mahal, but – will you be doing all Christmas songs, including the originals the band wrote?

McKinnie:  It’s not just the Christmas tour.  It’s gonna be a mixture. This concert will consist of traditional gospel songs like “Amazing Grace” and “People Get Ready” and more songs from our other CDs.  But we will do some songs from Talkin’ Christmas and Go Tell it on the Mountain [their first holiday album, a Grammy winner released in 2003 on Real World].  

CulturalOyster: Is there anything else you want to say?

McKinnie:  Jut tell the people that the Blind Boys are on their way.  Tell everybody to tell somebody that Madison will not be the same when the boys are back in town.