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October 3, 2006

There will be a light: Blind Boys of Alabama grace the Brown

Blind Boys of AlabamaAmazement is the most common reaction from audiences upon witnessing a Blind Boys of Alabama performance. This is in part because of the incredible talent and emotion that is let loose whenever they take the stage. But also, the reaction deals with the reality, as their moniker suggests, that everybody in the band is legally blind.LEO recently caught up with the group’s drummer, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, who humbly downplays their amazing capabilities. McKinnie explains his perspective, “You know, once upon a time I played some keyboards, but mostly I’ve been a drummer and a singer in this world. I’ve been playin’ ever since I was 12. I’m 54 now, so I oughtta know my way around a drum kit and my parameters as a vocalist with or without my vision. It’s kinda that way with all of us.”The earliest incarnation of this now legendary soul-gospel-vocal group came together in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. In addition to McKinnie, Bobby Butler, Tracy Pierce and Joey Williams, the band still includes such original members as Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott.McKinnie respects their rich tradition and has never minded being one of the new kids on the block. As he tells it, “I lost my eyesight in 1975. I guess I was 23 years old. In some ways it was a devastating event, but there was never any doubt in my mind that I would continue on as a musician. I knew I was a good fit for the Blind Boys because growing up I was exposed to lots of styles of music. I really dug classical music but also got into rock ’n’ roll, rhythm & blues, soul and obviously gospel.”Even though McKinnie’s approach to music matched up well with the Blind Boys’ efforts to marry contemporary styles and songs to the world of traditional gospel music, his was a slow assimilation into the group. As McKinnie recalls, “I stepped into my current role gradually. I first met Clarence way back when I was 4 years old through my mother, who was a singer in another band playing the same sort of circuits. So we had some history already when I started sitting in with them. But it wasn’t until 1991 that it turned into a permanent position. Then, for a while, I even functioned as the group’s manager.”The Blind Boys of Alabama have touched an untold number of souls with their spiritual recordings. Over the years, many listeners have been especially moved, though probably surprised, by the Blind Boys’ bold take on tunes penned by enigmatic songwriters like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Their latest release pushes their flirtation with secular music even further. Blues and raps and, believe it or not, tape loops, find their way onto Atom Bomb. So do members of Los Lobos and Blackalicious! The results are irresistibly fun and profoundly provocative. This inventive band has been delighting live audiences for nearly 60 years now with tight harmonies and intriguing stage presence. But recently the Blind Boys had the opportunity to wow a television audience as well. They were invited to participate in an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” an occasion that they felt especially suited for. As McKinnie relates, “That was such a great experience for us. It was wonderful to be a part of because we — mostly through the events of our own lives — were able to demonstrate to folks that no matter what happens in life, and I’m referring to the stuff that’s unexpected or hard to accept, good things can come of it. That’s the theme of the show. And that’s the story of our career.”Optimistic as ever, McKinnie believes that for himself and the rest of the Blind Boys, the future remains wide open. And this outlook on life — not to mention the sort of music they create — is clearly rooted in their shared experience of Christianity. As McKinnie concludes, “The Bible says seek and you shall find, ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you. All of my life I’ve been seeking, asking, and knocking on doors. I learned at an early age that without God you can’t do anything, but if you keep the faith and stay close to the Lord, anything and, in fact, everything is possible.” Amazing.Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com