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High and higher: Ricky McKinnie on the longevity of The Blind Boys of Alabama


Ricky McKinnie, one of the lead singers of The Blind Boys of Alabama, talks about their music, impact and longevity.

The Blind Boys of Alabama will grace the gospel stage at Riverfest in Wichita on Monday. The legendary group got their start in a school choir in 1939. The group has performed for U.S. presidents, won several Grammys and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. KMUW's Carla Eckels spoke with Ricky McKinnie, one of the lead singers of the Blind Boys, about their music and impact.

Interview Highlights

Carla Eckels: Ricky McKinnie, you were featured on NPR's Tiny Desk concert and one of the songs that you sang was "Take The High Road."

Ricky McKinnie: Yes, "Take The High Road." That was a great song. We did it with the Oakridge Boys and ... Oh, what a time we had. We were in Nashville, Tennessee, and Jamie Johnson — he produced that record. And I had an opportunity to do the preaching part at the beginning of the song.

So now The Blind Boys have been in the music industry for more than 70 years. That is absolutely amazing. Why do you believe that you've had such great longevity through the years?

Well, the Blind Boys have had great longevity because we believe in what we do and we like what we do, and we prepare and appreciate the people that come out to the program. But most of all, we trust in God, and God [has] shown favor [upon] the group.

Well, now, how did you come to record the Stevie Wonder song, "Higher Ground?"

Well, when we did that album we had a producer — his name was Chris Goldsmith — and that was one of the songs that he picked out ... because that's the kind of group we are — we just keep on moving high and higher.

No question, and the way that it was produced, I mean, the music and everything, there's been so many of your fans who said they really like your version.

Yeah. Well, we had some good musicians playing for us. I think that's Robert Randolph in the family band playing the music. ...Working together works, so we made it happen.

And Ricky, have you ever met Stevie Wonder? Have you ever worked with him directly?

Yes. We met Stevie Wonder, several times. But one time, in particular, we attempted to sing Higher Ground with him. We had been awarded the Visions Lifetime Achievement Award and he was there to present the award to the Blind Boys and we did sing Higher Ground.

What was that like?

It was fantastic. I mean, it was just out of this world to be able to sing that song and be there. And ... him blowing into his harmonica and we are singing, and it was just great.

We also were doing the Gospel at Colonus, and he came to the show in Los Angeles, and we had a chance to ... talk to him. He just seemed like a ... nice guy and one of our guys back then — Bishop Billy Bowers— he was singing the second verse in "High Ground." He said, "Well, Stevie, I, I, I know it's your song, but, uh, that second verse, that's MY verse." And he laughed and he said, "Okay, whatever you want to do. It's all right with me! I can blow my harmonica." <laughs>

<laughs> In other words, I'm gonna continue singing that part, right? That's gonna be my part, Stevie!

Yeah. <laughs>

Oh, that is so funny. That is so funny. You also recorded a video, and I understand that was the first time you all actually produced a video as well.

Yes, we recorded a video, and it came out rather well. We were glad to be able to get in because we like the song. We do that song a lot as our encore song, but it's just a good song.

From your latest release, "Almost Home," there's a song that says, I Can See. Tell me about that one.

Well, that song was written by the bass player, Ray Lason, and the guitar player, Joey Williams — who used to be the director for Blind Boys. It was a song that they wrote about how the Blind Boys are and how we feel about different things. And...it kind of portrays ... where we are. I sing the first verse and it works for us. Cause I can see, I found out that I'm not blind.

What does that mean to you personally?

That means that I might have lost my sight, but I never lost my vision. My motto is, "I'm not blind, I just can't see," and that means that I might have lost my sight, but I never lost my vision because it's not about what I can't do. That's important. It's about what I do.

What would we be surprised to know about this legendary musical group, the Blind Boys of Alabama?

Well, I guess the only surprising thing is that, when you come to hear The Blind Boys, if you come feeling sad, you gonna leave feeling glad. And we always have a real good time. And ... one thing is that we are a blind group. A lot of people, they say ... we do so well on stage that they don't really think that we can't see. But, the singers in the Blind Boys are blind and we have a band that plays behind us.

What's next for the Blind Boys? Do you have any new music coming up?

The Blind Boys are getting ready to release a new record. It's going to come out in August. And then after that next year we got a book that's coming out about The Blind Boys of Alabama. So, there's a lot of great things on [the] horizon. So just, keep ... your eyes and your ears open cause there's gonna be some good things coming on about the Blind Boys.

But the next thing that's going on with us is that we are gonna be right there with you.

What can people expect when you perform at Gospelfest here in Wichita during the Riverfest this year?

Well, they can expect some of the best in music, by the Blind Boys. We're gonna sing some of my old songs and some of the new songs. And I tell you what, if you like singing alone — ...like good acapella songs — you just like good old music and you just like having a good time ... come and see The Blind Boys, we're gonna have a wonderful time.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.