Music fans … here’s a little test for you …
What popular act is generally considered the longest-running band in America? The Beach Boys, The Four Tops, The Rolling Stones..? (yeah, we know they’re British).
If you guessed “None of the Above,” you’d be correct.
In fact, The Blind Boys of Alabama are the longest-running continuous music act in America. The “Boys” formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega, AL, and have been mainly comprised of musicians who are blind or visually impaired ever since. One original member, Jimmy Carter, who joined as a child, still sings with the band.
On Wednesday, April 27, the band is co-headlining “From Bamako to Birmingham,” a concert with celebrated Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. The 7:30PM show at The Vets in Providence is sponsored by FirstWorks, a leading cultural arts organization in the state.
I spoke to longtime band member Ricky McKinnie last week and learned more about the upcoming show. The evening is organized to showcase the talents of both acts. “We do a separate set and then we do a set together,” McKinnie explained.
It’s their first major tour since the pandemic hit two years ago. “When the pandemic hit, we were just coming out of New Zealand and all activity stopped as far as travel and concerts,” McKinnie noted. “It kind of put things on hold, it gave us the opportunity to get some much-needed rest. We were able to come together and work on our music.”
One product of the pandemic was the Grammy-nominated song “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” recorded with Béla Fleck. The song was nominated for “Best American Roots Performance” at the 2022 Grammys. “We did some recording during the pandemic, that single we did with Béla Fleck was great,” said McKinnie.
Although they’ve won numerous awards through the years, this was their second nomination outside the Gospel category. In total, the band has won five Grammy awards in gospel categories and a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2009.
McKinnie is clear on why gospel music remains essential.
“Because we’re living in a time when God is needed and wanted; we realize that God is real. People realize that God is real, and that’s the reason why. Gospel music is a way to connect,” said McKinnie emphatically.
Over the years, the band has toured and recorded with “A-List” musicians from all over the popular music world, including many who you wouldn’t normally associate with gospel. I asked McKinnie who was most memorable.
“Mavis Staples, of course, Ben Harper, and we did some work with Dr. John, he was a good friend of ours,” he said. “The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel … we’ve had the opportunity to go on tour with so many people. These are just some of the folks who have been special to the Blind Boys. All of our tours are special to us.”
McKinnie’s message regarding the upcoming concert.
“If you miss the show with Amadou & Mariam and Blind Boys of Alabama, you’re gonna regret it. It’s high energy and it’s a concert that you have probably never seen before. We’ll be singing some of the songs that you love to hear like “Amazing Grace,” and we come together with Amadou and Mariam to sing a song called “I Can See.” The main thing I want people to know …don’t miss it when the Boys are back in town!”