Since 1939, the members of the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama and their soaring vocals have been lifting up the souls of their listeners. The multiple Grammy Award-winning artists will perform at 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.
The original members of the group met as children at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Eric “Ricky” McKinnie – who lost his eyesight to glaucoma in 1975 – officially has been a member of the group since 1990, after being asked to join the Blind Boys of Alabama by founding member and longtime group leader Clarence Fountain, who died last year.
Kane County Chronicle reporter Eric Schelkopf had the chance to talk to McKinnie about the upcoming show. The interview has been edited for length and style.
Eric Schelkopf: Was that a high honor to be asked into the group by one of the founding members?
Eric “Ricky” McKinnie: I had known Clarence since I was 4 years old. And I had the opportunity to work with them, not as a member, but as a musician and a singer, in about 1980. When he asked me about being a member, it was a pleasure to see what I could do for the Blind Boys.
Schelkopf: Unfortunately, Clarence passed away last year at the age of 88. How is the group carrying on without him?
McKinnie: Well, Clarence had stopped touring with the group in 2007. He was dealing with kidney disease and was on a dialysis machine. But it’s always a hard thing when you lose a founding member. He was still playing a big part in decision-making and he sang on records.
Schelkopf: You said you had known Clarence since you were 4. Did the group inspire you to get into the music business? I know your mother, Sarah McKinnie Shivers, was a gospel singer.
McKinnie: They did. Clarence was an innovator. He managed the group, he got record deals and he did everything needed to keep the Blind Boys on the road. His love for the group inspired me to feel the same way about the music business. He really inspired me.
Schelkopf: What’s the best part of being in Blind Boys of Alabama?
McKinnie: The best thing for me is to be a part of a legendary icon, the Blind Boys of Alabama. The Blind Boys are a black blind quartet. And that in itself means the world to me.
Schelkopf: Do you try to inspire other people who may have a disability to not see their disability as a barrier?
McKinnie: The mission of the Blind Boys is to let people know that a disability does not have to be a handicap. It’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you do that makes the difference.
Schelkopf: I noticed there’s a quote on your website that says, ‘I’m not blind. I just can’t see.’ Explain that.
McKinnie: It means that I might have lost my sight, but I never lost my direction.
Schelkopf: You started out on drums and you’ve transitioned into being one of the group’s lead singers. Was that a hard transition to make?
McKinnie: No, because I’ve been doing it all of my life. I sang in a choir and had my own group for years. And I was singing from the drums with the Blind Boys. It was just an honor to get an opportunity to work with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Schelkopf: Of course, the band has such a rich history. During the upcoming show at the Paramount Theatre, are you going to be drawing from the band’s entire history or will you be concentrating on the band’s latest projects?
McKinnie: We’re going to start out with some traditional gospel music and then sing some songs from our latest CD, “Almost Home.” One of our signature songs is “Amazing Grace.”
Schelkopf: Do you see your concerts almost being like a church service?
McKinnie: This is the way I see it. What’s from the heart reaches the heart. And we try to sing from the soul. Some people see it as a religious experience and some people see it as just an experience to make them feel good. The main thing about it is we want you to feel good. We don’t come to preach, we just want you to feel good.
If you go
WHAT: Blind Boys of Alabama
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 18
COST & INFO: $30 to $50; paramountaurora.com, 630-896-6666