After touring the country with Big Maybelle and Eugene Church, 17-year-old Maurice McKinnies moved to the Twin Cities, where he soon became a key player in the close-knit, flourishing R&B, funk and soul music community that pioneered the Minneapolis Sound.
Upon moving to the area, he played with a band called the Big M’s, which featured Buddy and Walker Munson. That same year, he also formed an early version of the Blazers (which became the Champions) before leaving to serve three years in the army, as noted in Secret Stash Records’ “Twin Cities Funk and Soul” liner notes.
When he returned to the Twin Cities in 1966, he restarted the Blazers, which included bassist Steve Crowe and drummer Edgar Murphy. Eventually, keyboardist Ronnie Scott and guitarist Donald Breedlove also joined the band, and Maurice McKinnies and the Champions were born.
“Maurice McKinnies and the Champions are one of the only ones [in Minneapolis’ R&B scene] that had multiple 45s come out and by everything I can tell, they played it all the time, they played it very regularly in the clubs that allowed black musicians to play it at,” said Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records.
The band released singles under the city’s first black-owned record label, Black and Proud Records. The founder, Jack Harris, was also a DJ and program director at KUXL in the late ’60s and ’70s, and went on to create minority-focused newspapers, among several other projects.
“I think Jack Harris is the ultimate doer,” Foss said. “If he ever had an idea, he was just going to do it … I don’t think we have anyone like him today.”
The record label was more of a side project for Harris, Foss said, and released just five records — two 45s by Maurice McKinnies and the Champions, one from the Midnight Stompers, and two from Harris himself. The Champions’ “Sock A Poo Poo” was the only single from the label to be picked up for national distribution.
“It was one of those songs that just happened,” bassist Steve Crowe said. “I think it hit 20 of the Billboard’s 100. I was surprised, we didn’t have any idea.”
After the Champions ended in 1969, McKinnies founded the Free System, which featured Wilbur Cole, James Vasquez, Jimmy Hughes and Bob Hughes, according to Secret Stash. In the mid 1970s, he moved out west and settled in California, where he still lives today.
Crowe described McKinnies as a very professional bandleader, and remembers that the band would dress up for their multiple gigs a week — often at North Minneapolis’ Cozy Bar. For Crowe, playing in McKinnies’ band was a valuable learning experience as a young musician.
“I didn’t have any experience and we were young, and he had already been one of the top five musicians in the Twin Cities,” Crowe said. “He was a great guitar player. I learned a lot from him, just from me playing bass. And all I had to do was watch and he was one of the better guitar players in the city at the time. He was just very extraordinary.”
Jackie Renzetti is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”