When singer and drummer Ricky McKinnie lost his eyesight overnight at age 23, he thought: This too shall pass.
The blindness, due to scar tissue from glaucoma surgeries, did not pass, however, and he had to relearn life as a sightless person. Though his independence took a hit, McKinnie carved out a life anybody would deem a success. He went on to become a member of the Grammy Award-winning gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama.
“I was all right because you have to know who you are within yourself,” McKinnie said from a tour stop in New Jersey, “and I’ve always been an optimist.”
One could posit that the silver lining to losing his sight was the invitation, about 15 years later, from Clarence Fountain, founder of the Blind Boys of Alabama, to join the group in 1990. The iconic group will perform Wednesday at Ent Center for the Arts.
“My motto is: I’m not blind; I just can’t see,” said McKinnie, 66. “That means I might have lost my sight, but I never lost my direction.”
The group of five will perform a combination of traditional gospel music, some from their latest album, last year’s “Almost Home,” and Christmas music from their 2003 album, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
The group’s original members, including Fountain, who died last year at 88, and Jimmy Carter, who’s still an active member, got together in the 1930s when they were boys at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. While singing together in the school choir, they formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers and eventually began touring. After recording the 1948 hit “I Can See Everybody’s Mother but Mine,” they changed their name and spent the next seven decades spreading gospel music.
“We have shown the world that disabilities don’t have to be a handicap,” said McKinnie. “It’s about what you can do that makes a difference, not what you can’t do.”
“These men were both raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living,” wrote band manager Charles Driebe in a statement for the media last year.
Fountain and Carter bucked every low expectation, including the repeated suggestion to veer from gospel music and record different genres, such as blues or rock ‘n’ roll. Their answer was always no. They were committed to their mission.
“We were blind boys in Christian homes, and faith has brought us this far,” McKinnie said. “We all have been dreamers. We realize if you can dream the dream, do the work and keep the faith, things work out.”
A Blind Boys of Alabama show is a study in harmonies, falsettos, long holds and camaraderie. To McKinnie, these men are his family — some are like older brothers, and Fountain was a father figure, he said. And when he’s singing on stage, in the middle of his clan, it all comes together.
“That centers me,” he said. “That’s heaven to me.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270