ATLANTA — In the back room of a small house here, Ricky McKinnie sits in front of a row of Grammy trophies.
The five awards, received between 2001 and 2008, are offset by one other Grammy, the special one bestowed upon the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2009.
“How many people have a lifetime achievement Grammy?” asks McKinnie’s brother, Chuck Shivers, the tour manager of one of the most unique groups in music history.
Indeed, the Blind Boys of Alabama, a collaboration that originated at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, has witnessed a rotating cast of members during its tenure, released more than 50 gospel-soul albums and worked with artists ranging from Tom Petty to Bonnie Raitt to Peter Gabriel to Al Green.
For the past 22 years, McKinnie has been an official member, but, in a cosmic twist, he and the Blind Boys actually first met when McKinnie was 5 years old.
Now a few weeks from turning 60, the soft-spoken McKinnie talks about his early musical history and his mother, Sarah McKinnie Shivers, a career singer whose touring patterns often crossed paths with the Blind Boys’ decades ago.
McKinnie wasn’t blind when he encountered the group as a child. Glaucoma robbed him of his sight at 23, a little more than a decade after he started playing drums. He had his own set then, a small kit marked with his name that is still in his mother’s possession — a few footsteps away in the neighboring house where the Atlanta native grew up with his four siblings.
“God has been good to me. My career started 40 years ago and since then, I’ve been able to sing with so many noted groups,” McKinnie said, citing Troy Ramey & the Soul Searchers in Atlanta and the Gospel Keynotes in Texas, before he returned home to start the Ricky McKinnie Singers with his mother in the late ‘70s.
The pair also launched the weekly radio show “Words and Music for Your Soul” on WYZE, which they both still host at 9 a.m. every Sunday. McKinnie, who is also the team’s business manager, is a force of positivity, peppering his conversation with comments that might sound like fortune cookie platitudes, but to him, express his outlook on life.
“People have come to understand that our disability doesn’t have to be a handicap,” he said, later noting, “I never underestimated myself as to who I am and what I’m about. It’s not who people say you are. It’s who you know you are.”
McKinnie, who has always been a singing drummer and counts Buddy Miles among his early favorites because he, too, pulled double duty, is spending more time at the front of the stage on Blind Boys of Alabama dates.
Jimmy Carter, billed as an original member since he was enrolled in the Alabama institute when the group started performing, but was too young to join them, is the elder statesman and lead singer. Ben Moore and Billy Bowers usually form the rest of the front line of singers. But Bowers recently was injured and underwent back surgery, so McKinnie is taking his place at the microphone.
It’s a move he agreed to with trademark acceptance.
“I feel privileged to be up front with the other guys. But I’m comfortable wherever I am,” he said.
Joining the trio are music director-guitarist Joey Williams, drummer Austin Moore and organist Peter Levin. At a recent Atlanta show, bassist Ben Odom filled in for regular bass player Tracy Pierce.
“We have musicians and then we have the Blind Boys,” McKinnie explained. “To be a member of the Blind Boys organization, we look for blind singers.”
While he isn’t sure if the Blind Boys of Alabama will last forever with a revolving group of vocalists, McKinnie is hopeful that there are enough young, blind singers out there willing to “keep that sound and have integrity.” But there is no shortage of plans for this current crew. They’ll tour in the fall with Dr. John and then, McKinnie hopes, work on a new release, one that he’s pushing to be a “back-to-our-roots” record. Their annual Christmas tour will also take place as usual.
The Blind Boys’ most recent album, last year’s country-leaning “Take the High Road,” signified a departure from their expected sound.
“When we hit the stage, we tell the crowd that the Blind Boys don’t like a conservative crowd. We like a noisy crowd. We come out with ‘People Get Ready’ and ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ and then in the middle of it, we take ‘em back to church,” McKinnie said with a soft laugh.
Though he’s endured significant physical hardships, McKinnie chose long ago not to wallow in self-pity, but turn his challenges into growth experiences.
“We all have limitations,” he said. “We (in the Blind Boys) show people that no matter what your situation is, you can make it if you try. If you can dream the dream, do the work and keep the faith, you’re going to be all right.”
// Notes from the Road
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