Interviewing the Blind Boys of Alabama—A thrill that will never be gone

| April 5, 2013
Acclaimed writer Madeline M. Garvin (second from left) shares an historic photo moment with (from left) Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Jimmy Carter and Joey Williams of the world famous Blind Boys of Alabama. (Courtesy photo)

Acclaimed writer Madeline M. Garvin (second from left) shares an historic photo moment with (from left) Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Jimmy Carter and Joey Williams of the world famous Blind Boys of Alabama. (Courtesy photo)

Uncut Special Presentation From time to time, Frost Illustrated exercises its commitment to present voices straight from the community. Oftentimes, those voices insist on getting across a totally uncensored message to preserve their cadence and context. In an effort to honor such voices, we offer the following Uncut Special Presentation unedited and written exactly as the presenter intended. (Note: Uncut Special Presentations still must adhere to rules regarding slander and libel.)

By Madeline Marcelia Garvin
Special to Frost Illustrated

Waking up Saturday, March 23, at 8:30 A.M., I debated with myself regarding doing a live interview with the Blind Boys of Alabama; though I had done a couple such interviews years ago, it wasn’t with a group whose music I loved. So, “come Saturday morning,” I was still arguing with myself, and I said, “OK, Mat, go; this might be a good thing.”

So, I threw on my Frederick Douglass shirt, my brown apple hat, my IU-B lanyard, navy hoodie and a long black skirt. And since I’ve dealt with debilitating arthritis over 30 years, I traipsed gingerly out the door to slide in my little red wagon and park at the handicap spot in front of the Hilton for the 11:00 a.m. interview, which ended up being uplifting in more ways than one.

When I walked into the Hilton lobby entrance, who to my wondering eyes should be seated right there in front of the registration desk, but members of the fabulous Blind Boys of Alabama: Lead Singer, Mr. Jimmie Carter along with vocalist Mr. Erick “Ricky” McKinnie and guitarist Mr. Joey Williams. Man I was in gospel/country Heaven. People who know me know I’m not hesitant about greeting and meeting celebrities. Thus, I meandered over to Mr. Jimmy Carter, one of the original singers, because his face is unforgettable. I introduced myself to Mr. Carter by telling him I was a third generation retired teacher, and I write gratuitously for Frost Illustrated. Being the gentleman that he is, Mr. Carter introduced me to Mr. Eric “Ricky” McKinnnie, and they exchanged pleasantries and were cordial to entertain my small talk until I excused myself and told them I had a few choice questions to save for the press conference, which ended up being a spirited improvised conversation, because no other news media attended aside from Channel 15, which was OK by me. This left more time for me to have some serious and light hearted conversation with these marvelous musicians.

Mr. Jimmy Carter, in his interview with Channel 15 indicated he was brought up in a Christian environment, and he learned to be persistent and persevere. Vocalist Ricky McKinnie pointed out that it is important to share the message that disability doesn’t have to be a handicap, and “it doesn’t mean you don’t have ability.” Listening to the interview with Joey Williams, Joey stated that he was raised in a family in which there was a gospel music quartet, and eventually he got into it, and the Blind Boys of Alabama have been fortunate to be able to go around the world telling the world about Jesus, and even though some can’t speak the language, they can feel the power of the music.”

Continuing with the televised interview, Joey said “coming from where I’ve come from and they’ve come from, one could never imagine the things that we have done and experienced collectively and individually., and I would like to emphasize that you can make it if you try, for the disability doesn’t have to be a handicap.”

At this juncture, League of the Blind, President and CEO David A. Nelson invited me to sit at the table with the invited performers to have our tete at tete. My first question after introducing myself by telling them that I write for Fort Wayne’s only Black newspaper Frost Illustrated, focused on the 60’s, because I wanted to know the impact it had on them as musicians. Jimmy, the eldest, explained that he began singing in the segregated South, and many times they had no place to stay aside from rundown rooms and rundown hotels, and since they loved gospel, they overcame though they too confronted many injustices.

Being a Bonnie Raitt fan, I of course, shared that I knew of their recording with Bonnie Raitt, and I wanted to know what that experience was like. Mr. Carter revealed that they had many powerful sessions with Bonnie in LA, which was where they worked on “When the Spell Is Broken.” In addition, Carter shared that their most memorable experiences are all different; however, he was a country music fan, and he thoroughly enjoyed working with the likes of Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack and Willie Nelson.

Mr. Mckinnie shared that two other things that were significant to him were when the group received the Helen Keller Award as well as the Life Time Achievement Award at the Grammy’s. Being a little more youthful, Mr. Williams stated he was impacted by two memorable things that took place at the NAACP Image Awards when he felt honored to perform tribute music for Ossie Davis and George Scott along with some other talented Black artists who have crossed over; but, a real thrill for him was when Prince jumped on stage, took his guitar and began to play, at which I shared, “ yes, because Prince and the Revolution partied always like it’s 1999.”

Wrapping it up the press conference, there was a little light hearted commentary when all were excused so they could rest, and Mr. Carter said, “I’m ready to go eat, and at that moment he quickly posed to me, “Can you cook?”

I then shared growing up, my sister and I were not allowed in my mother’s kitchen because she had majored in Home Economics at Clark College, and the kitchen was her domain. But, a friend of mine told me to study cookbooks, which I did after my retirement. Thus, I let the Blind Boys of Alabama know, I can cook! After attending the night’s concert, it’s evident these talented musicians will never have to cook because the way they heat up a performance hall, they can hire anyone they want to cook anything they desire.

Greeting the audience and welcoming all for attending, Jimmy let attendees know in the forefront he expected them to be responsive, and he got what he expected, especially after letting the audience know right off the bat that their initial applause was not satisfactory.

Though all of the numbers performed by the group were fabulous, some stood out more than others: their rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of ”The House of the Rising Sun,” was extraordinary, but when Jimmy broke into the old school version of “Amazing Grace,” some audience members were on their feet clapping. A few other exceptionally performed numbers included: Way Down in the Hole, Freedom, People Get Ready, and two well received takes from their country album which I loved, because I too am a little bit country with a passion for Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson music.

But, that which grabbed me the most were the pulsating rhythms featured from the “Down in New Orleans” track as well as the introduction to the band members who shared how they felt on their musical instruments, when Mr. Jimmie Carter asked , “How do you feel?” And, the organist, bass guitarist, drummer and lead guitarist and musical director, Joey Williams all let loose on their instrument of choice with how they felt, causing many in the audience to let loose with how they felt. This concert was a foot tapping, head bopping, handclapping, “ooo-oop” success, and though my friend, Carolyn Jones, Esq. wanted to hear Precious Lord, she shared she had a real good time, and said, “I wish I could have heard more piano; the pianist was fabulous.” The entire performance was fabulous, and Mr. Cool – Joey Williams with his gyrating guitar performance caused me to say his name more times than I can remember.

Because of the warmth generated throughout the performance, the audience returned the warmth with so much applause and a standing ovation at the concert’s end that all were blessed with an encore. All exciting the theatre seemed to have enjoyed the performance, and Pat Weicker, the wife of FWCS Security Director John Weicker shared that the Blind Boys of Alabama’s song I’m Free could soon be her spouse’s theme song, since he would soon be retiring.

To have the privilege of meeting two of the three blind singers: Mr. Jimmie Carter and Mr. Eric McKinnie as well as guitarist Mr. Joey Williams was a real honor and humbling experience for me, an honor I could never have imagined. And how did this honor for a retired English teacher who has debilitating arthritics come about? It happened because I, like Mr. Carter said I persevered, continued to write and did not stop going places, just like an individual who saw me utilizing a wheel chair said, “You aren’t going to let anything hold you down,” I wanted to tell her that there are times I have excruciating pain. But, what am I to do? Fold, close myself up and stop doing and experiencing life, just because my spine hurts or my hands pain and my legs do not want to go? No, I refuse to do that, and fortunately, I learned early to listen to my teachers, and I enjoyed reading and writing. So, like the Blind Boys of Alabama, I remain persistent, and I move forward, pressing on towards the mark. It’s a great life – aches, pains and all!

Though March is recognized as disabilities month, people have to realize that people are confronted with disabilities throughout their life, and it is people like Judi Loomis, David Nelson and the Blind Boys of Alabama who continue giving those with afflictions hope, letting them know that their disability does not have to be a handicap.

This article originally appeared in our April 3, 2013 issue.

Category: Local

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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