Anyone who had the opportunity to see Maurice McKinnies perform back in the 1960s seems to get the same starry-eyed look in their eyes when they remember back to seeing him live.
“Maurice was the one,” Wanda Davis told me once, reflecting on her days singing back-up vocals in his band. “As they say, he’s the man. He was just so natural with his talent.”
Back in those days, McKinnies fronted the barnburning Minneapolis R&B/funk band the Blazers, who would perform regularly as the de facto house band at underground venues like the Cozy in North Minneapolis or King Solomon’s Mines in downtown. The Blazers gained traction during the second half of the ’60s, and their sound drew from the major influences of the era, including the gritty, freight train grooves of early funk artists like James Brown, and the aching, soulful crooning of Otis Redding and Janis Joplin, all of it anchored by McKinnies’ on-stage charisma and raw vocal talent.
Although the late-’60s period of his career is the most easily accessible — he recorded two 45s in 1969 for the local label Black and Proud Records as Maurice McKinnies and the Champions, and their songs “Sock-A-Poo-Poo ’69” and “Sweet Smell of Perfume” were reissued in 2012 as part of the Secret Stash compilation Twin Cities Funk and Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1964-1979 — McKinnies’ music career actually spanned over five decades, beginning when he was just 16 years old.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1944, McKinnies’s talent was evident from an early age. When he was still a teenager, he was tapped by the howling blueswoman Big Maybelle, the artist who wrote “Ball and Chain” for Janis Joplin, to join her touring band on guitar. By the time the tour wrapped up his family had moved from Florida to Minneapolis, so Maurice followed suit.
Maurice was 17 when he touched down in the Twin Cities, and he immediately dove into the burgeoning black music scene, joining the Big M’s with brothers Walker and Buddy Munson, saxophone player Morris Wilson, and a young Willie Murphy. Walker Munson had just graduated from North High School in Minneapolis, and he knew a local engineer who could cut a record for them in his basement and print a thousand copies of it for $500. Little did the band know that they were about to make history. Their 45, which features the crooner “Silent Lover” and the saxophone-driven instrumental “Get Going,” was the first record cut by an R&B group in the state of Minnesota.
In 1961, McKinnies started a new band, the Blazers. First it was just bassist Steve Crowe and drummer Edgar Murphy joining him, but before they could get much traction going, McKinnies was called to serve in the Army. After a three-year service, he returned to Minneapolis and kept the Blazers going, adding players like Ronnie Scott, Wilbur Cole, and Donald Breedlove. It was this incarnation of the band that would tear up the dance floor at King Solomon’s Mines and the Cozy, and they became one of the best-known bands in the black bar circuit.
“He was very much in command and in demand,” recalled Wee Willie Walker, who was fronting his own R&B group at the time, the Exciters. “We eventually ended up in a rival competition.”
In addition to tearing up the club circuit, McKinnies had also become a notorious figure on the North Side. André Cymone, who would form his first band at the age of 12 with a young Prince Rogers Nelson, recalls McKinnies cruising through the housing projects off Lyndale in a shiny white Thunderbird and rehearsing with the Blazers in the basement of one of the houses a few lots away from where he lived.
“They used to practice in the projects, and I lived in the projects,” André remembered. “I would see his car drive around, and I would run and run and follow, because I knew who he was. Maurice McKinnies! I knew he had a record, and I was so fascinated. I ran, and they went and practiced down in the basement, and I jumped in the window well and watched them practice.”
André would have only been eight or nine at the time, but McKinnies’s power as a performer clearly made a lasting impression on him; when he recalled the anecdote, he had a tear in his eye.
“They had amplifiers — and I didn’t even know what an amplifier was,” he said. “I didn’t know all that stuff then. You’d see that stuff on TV, but I never saw it for real… That was the first time I saw it for real. So I was just blown away. I was just taking it all in. And it was after seeing Maurice McKinnies that I was, like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
At the launch party for my book last fall, André paid tribute to McKinnies with a fiery cover of “Sock-A-Poo-Poo ’69,” backed by contemporary Twin Cities soul band Nooky Jones.
McKinnies was beloved in his North Minneapolis neighborhood and the underground black club circuit, but like many African-American artists of his era, he struggled to break through and be heard by the larger white music audience in the Twin Cities. In one of his last interviews with a local publication, Insider Magazine, McKinnies shared some of his frustrations with the limitations of the scene.
“It’s hard for black musicians here,” he said in 1972. “It’s double hard here I should say… It’s just about impossible to get a record played in this town. KUXL played it some, of course, and both got on some jukeboxes. But I couldn’t even get WDGY to listen to it.” Shortly after speaking to Insider, he left Minnesota for good and set up permanent residence in the Bay Area of California.
For the last 40 years, McKinnies pursued a career as a blues musician in the Bay Area, and lived in the Sacramento area after retiring from music in the early 2000s. He passed away of natural causes earlier this month, and is survived by two sisters, three daughters, and a son. His family has set up a GoFundMe to help cover funeral expenses back in Minnesota.
Today, I’m remembering Maurice McKinnies by listening to more of his incredible music. Sample his available recordings below, and tune into The Local Show this Sunday from 6-8 p.m. to hear a set of his songs on the Current.