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‘I lost my sight, but not my direction': The Blind Boys of Alabama are bringing the gospel to Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — Blind gospel singer Eric “Ricky” McKinnie was 4 years old when he first crossed paths with the Blind Boys of Alabama.

But he could see them then, and he liked what he saw. It wasn’t the fact that the musicians were blind that fascinated him — as a kid, that detail went over McKinnie’s head. It was the music. The gospel singers had message-driven harmonies and a palpable passion that showed they believed what they were singing.

“You didn’t realize they were blind by them doing (it) the way they did,” McKinnie, 67, said from his home in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood.

Over the years McKinnie, a drummer and singer, went on to perform with a number of gospel acts. In the early 1970s, he fell in with the Texas-based group the Gospel Keynotes and found success with a gold record, “Jesus, You Been Good to Me.” While the band was on the road touring, a bout with glaucoma that had begun a few years earlier left McKinnie blind.

He was 23 years old.

“I had always had problems with my vision, so when I lost my sight it didn't change who I was,” McKinnie said. “My motto is, ‘I’m not blind, I just can’t see.’ And that means that I lost my sight, but not my direction.”

Which is why it was easy for McKinnie to continue doing what he’d been doing all along: share his faith through music. In 1978, he formed the Ricky McKinnie Singers with his mother and brother, and then, about 10 years later, his life came full circle.

“I decided to be a member of the Blind Boys,” he said.

He had worked with the group on and off for several years, but in 1989, founding member Clarence Fountain — who passed away last year at 88 — officially reached out and invited him to join the Blind Boys of Alabama, who will perform alongside singer-songwriter Marc Cohn at Park City's Eccles Center on Aug. 13.

In the 30 years McKinnie has been with the Blind Boys, the gospel group has earned a handful of Grammys. But three decades is little more than a dent in a story that began in 1939 at what was then called the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind.

Since their first performance at the school 80 years ago, the Blind Boys of Alabama sang under oppressive Jim Crow laws, endured World War II, joined the Civil Rights movement and performed at benefits for Martin Luther King, Jr., sang gospel during the Vietnam War and brought their music to the White House, where they have performed for three presidents, according to the band’s website. Throughout the nation’s ups and downs, the Blind Boys’ gospel music has persisted.

“It hasn’t been that hard. … Gospel is what we do,” McKinnie said. “We’re a gospel group and I feel that we’ve been favored to do what we do for whatever reason. The Bible says, ‘If I be lifted up, I draw all men,’ and that’s been proven through the Blind Boys’ music. We sing gospel, and people from all walks of life like what we do.”

In its long history, the group has also collaborated with many artists, including Bonnie Raitt and Ben Harper. Most recently, the Blind Boys have done an album with Cohn, the singer-songwriter behind the hit song “Walking in Memphis.” When Cohn and the Blind Boys — a lineup that currently includes the lone surviving founding member Jimmy Carter, as well as Ben Moore, Paul Beasley and McKinnie — visit Park City, the new album “Work to Do” will have only been out for four days. The album features three studio tracks (two of which are original songs) and a handful of live tracks that blend the Blind Boys’ harmonies with hits from Cohn’s career. Another track on the album features the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” — an idea from the Blind Boy’s producer, John Loeffler.

“At first we didn’t think it was a good idea,” McKinnie said. “Some of the guys said, ‘Oh no, we couldn’t do that,' (but) we tried it and it worked. It gelled together. … The song ‘House of the Rising Sun’ gets the people’s attention, and the words ‘amazing grace’ win their hearts.”

McKinnie has a lot of sayings. During his 20-minute chat with the Deseret News, he casually dropped expressions like, “It’s not about what you can’t do; it’s about what you can do” and “If you do the work and keep the faith, things usually turn out OK.”

Those universal messages have woven their way into the more than 50 albums the Blind Boys of Alabama have released throughout an extensive career that shows no signs of slowing down.

But McKinnie also has a message specific to the people of Utah.

“The place to be is right there with Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys,” he said. “Just tell 'em I said, 'Don't miss it when the Boys are back in town.'”

If you go …

What: Taj Mahal Quartet and Marc Cohn featuring special guest vocalists Blind Boys of Alabama

When: Aug. 13, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Eccles Center, 1750 Kearns Blvd, Park City

How much: $49-$79

Web: parkcityinstitute.org