Eric McKinnie

by Guy Somerset / 11 April, 2009
Forget rock wrinklies like the Rolling Stones and the Who, they're whippersnappers compared with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who have been singing gospel music since 1939. Erick "Ricky" McKinnie is drummer; vocalist and tour manager; having joined the group in 1991. Their latest album, <i>Down in New Orleans,</i> is a post-Hurricane Katrina collaboration with some of the Big Easy's best R&#038;B and jazz musicians, and they are headliners at next weekend's National Jazz Festival in Tauranga.

Your lead singer, Jimmy Carter, was in the first line-up of the Blind Boys. There can't be many groups that have been together for 70 years with at least one of the original members. The only one I know that has done that was a gospel group together about 80 years when their lead singer passed away. We have always been dreamers. We know that if you can dream the dream, and keep the faith, and do the work, everything can turn out okay. What has made our career so successful is that we believe in what we're doing. The Bible says, "If I be lifted up, I draw all men", and we have gone all over the world and through our music have been drawing people.

All over the world, gospel music has a universal quality? It is music that comes from the soul and when you sing from the soul people can feel what you're doing because it somehow reaches the heart.

You cover a lot of material that isn't traditional gospel, how do you choose what you sing and what you don't? We have learned that every song carries a message and if the message that the song carries is a good clean message, a message that will bring people together, we don't mind singing the song, because we are singers.

Songs like Tom Waits' Way Down in the Hole, which was used as the theme for the first season of The Wire. We sing that every night in our show.

How did Down in New Orleans come about? We realised we couldn't go on down to New Orleans and help to rebuild the city, so we went down to inspire their hearts with our music.

It won you your fifth Grammy. At the same ceremony, you also got a lifetime achievement award. When I think about that, the Blind Boys, they do deserve a lifetime achievement award. Through it all, there were times when they would go and sing on shows and they wouldn't get paid, and there were times when they had to stay in hotels where no one else would stay, and stay in a lot of people's homes, and there would be a lot, not just because they were blind, but through segregation and everything else. I was just glad they got the award when they were still alive to appreciate it.

It's an amazing period of black American history that the group have lived through.It must feel like a good point at the moment with a black President. Thirty years ago, Barack Obama wouldn't have been President, because he is black. But the deal is, he's still black today, but we realise it's not about who you are, where you come from, the colour of your skin; it's about your ability. It's a great thing to know that people have come to the realisation that people are just people and that if you give them the chance, everything works out fine. The Blind Boys have shown the world that a disability doesn't have to be a handicap. Because it's not about what you can't do, it's about what you can do. That makes the difference. When we speak of the Blind Boys, my motto is: "I'm not blind, I just can't see." A lot of people want to know what that's all about. I let them know that I might have lost my sight but I didn't lose my direction.

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