BIG MAMA THORNTON December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984
RECOMMENDED ALBUMS: BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EURPOE (Arhoolie), BIG MAMA THORNTON AND THE MUDDY WATERS BLUES BAND (Arhoolie), THE ORIGINAL HOUND DOG (Ace Records)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMS: BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EURPOE (Arhoolie), BIG MAMA THORNTON AND THE MUDDY WATERS BLUES BAND (Arhoolie), THE ORIGINAL HOUND DOG (Ace Records)
On the morning of October 6, 2020, The Reverend John Wilkins passed
away at the age of 76. A talented guitarist and performer, Wilkins
was enjoying some late in life success thanks to his recently released
albums YOU CAN’T HURRY GOD and TROUBLE. He was a popular performer at
Blues festivals and because of his unique Country/Blues guitar playing
style, many considered Wilkins to be one of the last living links to a
musical period long gone. He is survived by a loving family (some of
whom performed with him at his concerts) and will always be
remembered by members of the church where he was a pastor in Como,
Born in Memphis in 1943 into a musical family Wilkins began playing
guitar at a young age thanks to his father, pre-war Blues guitarist
Robert Wilkins. Best known for his song “Prodigal Son” (which was
covered by The Rolling Stones in 1968), Robert Wilkins had a career
that started in the late 1920’s but didn’t enjoy mass success until
his “rediscovery” in 1964 as part of the Blues revival. From about
1936 until his rediscovery in ’64 Robert temporarily gave up playing
Blues and began focusing on Gospel music. It was during these years
that young John came into this world and began performing alongside
his father at church. While his father was probably his biggest
influence on his playing directly, John also soaked up the musical
sounds of Memphis during the 50’s and 60’s. He would go on to do
studio sessions and play in various groups around the city before
eventually settling down and becoming a pastor of the Hunter Chapel in
Como, Mississippi in 1985.
Even though Hunter Chapel had its fair share of blues musicians as
part of their congregation over the years once Wilkins took over as
pastor he gave up playing guitar entirely. He finally picked it up
again in 2003 after he attended a funeral for his friend, musician
Otha Turner. Inspired to pick up playing music again he got back into
performing and in 2010 he released his debut album YOU CAN’T HURRY GOD
(Big Legal Mess Records). The record was well received by many and
soon Wilkins found himself bringing the sound of the Mississippi Hill
Country (or as Wilkins called it “Hand-clappin’ foot-stompin” music)
to places like London and Paris. He became a major fixture at Blues
festivals all over the world and in 2019 recorded a follow up album.
All seemed to be going well for Wilkins and his family until April
2019 when he contracted COVID. Like many who have contracted the
disease Wilkins first found himself having trouble breathing and
feeling like he had the flu. He phoned his daughter and was quickly
admitted to a local hospital where he was hooked up on a respirator.
He stayed in the ICU for 5 weeks before his health slowly started to
improve. Then in mid June, Wilkins got the good news he was all clear
and returned home! Not long after his release from the Hospital he
released the album TROUBLE (Goner Records) that he recorded in 2019.
Recorded in Memphis at the legendary Royal Studios, TROUBLE was
finally released September 18th, 2020 and received rave reviews upon
its release . Formally the recording home of Willie Mitchell’s
Hi-Records (Al Green, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles) Royal Studios has been
one of the prominent spots to record in the south since 1957. The
recording session was sort of a homecoming for Wilkins as he performed
on sessions here in his earlier years. The studio is also known for
taking Soul music to the next level in the 60’s and 70. So, it seems
only fitting that the album Wilkins recorded here would be musically
diverse. Featuring a little something for everyone, TROUBLE is truly a
Memphis record. Here we find Wilkins and his band mixing Country and
Soul along with their normal mix of Blues and Gospel thus giving the
album more of a “Southern Soul” feel then his previous record. It also
must be said that one of highlights on this record is hearing Wilkins’
own daughters perform alongside him. Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones, Tawana Cunningham are all very talented in their own right and give the band sort of a Staple Singers sound on tunes like “Wade In The Water”, “Walk With Me”, and “Darkest Hour”.
If there’s any part of TROUBLE that is a bummer it’s that Wilkins
wasn’t alive long enough to see it enjoyed by his fans. As previously
mentioned he passed away October 6, 2020 from unknown causes. While he
will be missed by many all over the world we are fortunate he left us
two wonderful albums of music along with a lifetime of memories.
Hopefully his music will live on and find new listeners in the years
to come. After all, who doesn’t love some good Hand-clappin, foot-stompin’ music!
REV. JOHN WILKINS albums are currently available for streaming on Spotify and for purchase through most on-line retailers.
YOU CAN’T HURRY GOD (Big Legal Mess Records) 2010
TROUBLE (Goner Records) 2020
Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know. A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.
Soul Jazz Records
For fans of James Brown, Irma Thomas, Tina Turner, and The Meters
When you think of the greatest Soul singers of all time you probably don’t think of the name Betty Harris. Despite being as talented as superstars like Tina Turner and Etta James, Ms. Harris isn’t a household name. During the 1960’s she only released a handful of singles and only a few of those became hits. She then retired in 1970 to focus on her family. While her music has become very popular among Soul record collectors and aficionados over the years, it has never reached a mass audience. Fortunately the good folks at Soul Jazz Records are trying to change that with their recent release, BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL!
Born in Orlando FL, in 1941 (or possibly 1939) Ms. Harris started out singing gospel music when she was very young. Part of a very religious family, Harris wasn’t allowed to sing secular music while under her parent’s roof. She left home in her late teens to perform Blues and Soul music in California. After several years on the West Coast she moved to New York City where she hooked up with songwriter/producer Bert Berns. In 1963 she recorded her first hit, “Cry To Me”, a slow rendition of a tune singer Solomon Burke had recorded a year earlier. The song became a big hit for Harris and actually surpassed Burke’s original recording on the national charts! The success of “Cry To Me” inspired a few more releases from the Berns/Harris team including a fiery number called “Mo Jo Hannah”. Unfortunately none of these other recordings because hits and Burns and Harris went their separate ways.
WORKING WITH ALLEN TOUSSAINT
Shortly after her relationship with Burt Berns ended Harris met master Musican/Songwriter Allen Toussaint and began recording for his New Orleans based record label Sansu. Even though only one of the singles she recorded for Sansu charted nationally, the recordings she made while at the label are classic and make up the material on BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL. The music on this compilation is all killer-no-filler and ranges from classic R&B to hard funk! While it’s Harris’ larger-then-life vocals that commands the most attention on these songs we must also note that the backing band is made up of some of New Orleans’ finest musicians, including members of the legendary Funk group, The Meters. Like the Funk Brothers at Motown or Booker T. & The MG’s at STAX, The Meters are as important to the recording as the artist they are supporting. Finally, we must also acknowledge that none of these recordings would’ve been possible without master musician/producer Allen Toussiant behind the board. Not only do his talents as a producer take these recordings to another level, he also wrote almost all of these songs!
There was a time when all an artist would need to make a good recording was their instrument, a microphone, and a tape recorder. In fact, some of the greatest and most influential recordings of our time were made in rural areas in the back of small country stores or small cabins on equipment that was powered a car battery. Known as “field recordings”, these recordings were usually done by folklorists determined on documenting maters of American Roots music in a natural setting.
Personally, some of my favorite field recordings where done by music historian George Mitchell. Born in Coral Gables, Florida and raised in Athens, Georgia, Mr. Mitchell has recorded hundreds of hours of music, mostly by musicians who would’ve never been heard outside of their living room if it weren’t for him. He was the first to record Hill-Country Blues guitarist R.L. Burnside in 1967 in Mississippi, a recording session that yielded some the most heart-felt acoustic Blues ever recorded. He also was responsible for some excellent late-in-career recordings of Blues legends Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis.
In 2008 Fat Possum records complied a large number of George Mitchell’s recordings for a massive 7-disc box-set simply titled “The George Mitchell Recordings Vol. 1-45”. While the amount of music in this collection may have been perfect for the Blues connoisseur wanting to get completely stuffed on Mitchell’s field recordings, the collection lacked a certain intimacy you get when you focus on just one single artist’s session. Thankfully, the good people at Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records realize this and over the years have released entire sessions from individual artists recorded by George Mitchell. Below are some of my very favorites… No studio tricks, no auto-tune, just a musician and their music.
R.L. Burnside First Recordings Recorded in 1967
A popular style of Blues played by musicians from Northern Mississippi, “Hill Country Blues” focuses more on creating a hypnotic rhythm and less on following a specific chord progression. While musicians such as Otha Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Mississippi Fred McDowell (actually from Tennessee) are masters of this style, the two best known Hill Country Blues musicians are Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Both Kimbrough and Burnside made their first recordings in the 1960’s with the latter recording for George Mitchell in 1967.
George Mitchell first caught wind of R.L. Burnside while recording another Hill Country Blues master, Otha Turner. It was Turner who suggested to Mitchell that if he wanted to hear someone who could REALLY PLAY, he should check out his neighbor R.L. Burnside. Although both Turner and Burnside where unknown to the outside world at the time they were very popular in their respective communities and masters of the their instrument.
During his session for Mitchell, Burnside performed excellent versions of Hill Country standards, “Poor Black Mattie”, “Goin’ Down South” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin”. He also played a slow eerie-blues entitled “Just Like A Bird Without A Feather”, which is the best track on this wonderful album.
JOE CALLICOT Ain’t Gonna Lie To You Recorded in 1967
Recorded in 1967 and reminiscent of recordings by fellow guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, AIN’T GONNA LIE TO YOU is a mix of Blues standards and Gospel numbers. Also like Hurt, Joe’s voice isn’t the strongest in the world but yet it wonderfully complements his soft finger-picking guitar style. A perfect example of this is Joe’s beautiful rendition of the Folk standard “Frankie and Albert”. While Joe’s career actually began in the 1920’s and included recording sessions and performances outside of Mississippi he was never a household name and even gave up music in the 1940’s. Fortunately for us he returned to recording after meeting George Mitchell in 1967.
J.W. WARREN Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ Recorded in 1981 & 1982
J.W. Warren was born in 1921 in Enterprise, Alabama. Like many of the musicians recorded by George Mitchell, Warren was a farmer who mostly performed just for friends at parties and in local juke joints. The recordings on LIFE AIN’T WORTH LIVIN’ were done in Warren’s own home in Alabama by Mitchell on September 15th, 1981 and in March 27th, 1982. Musically, Warren stuck mostly to traditional-sounding Country Blues. His powerful voice is best displayed on the tune “Hoboing Into Hollywood” and at times bares resemblance to the voice of Country Blues legend Bukka White. Also like White, J.W. Warren was a slide guitar player who’s raw playing style helped him obtain local notoriety. He would scrap his jack-knife against the strings of his guitar to create the sound of a slide (documented here on the recording “My Mind Gets To Wandering”). Mostly a homebody, Warren never toured and rarely travelled out of his hometown. He lived out his final years at home in Ariton, AL, passing away on August 15th, 2003. Fortunately for us we can remember him through these excellent recordings.
Similar Artists: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins
The Beginning: Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues
In 1992 a small indie label called Fat Possum Records gave the American Blues scene a much needed kick-in-the-ass when they released the debut album from 62 year-old Bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Entitled ALL NIGHT LONG, the record was met with rave reviews from both critics and Blues fans and gave Kimbrough some well deserved national attention. Shortly after the success of the Kimbrough record Fat Possum also started having success with another one of their artists, R.L. Burnside. Like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was in his 60’s a resident of the Mississippi Hill Country and a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different than the well known Delta Blues style, Hill Country Blues focuses more on creating a groove and sometimes features other instruments such as Drums. With both the Kimbrough and Burnside records receiving some good press, Fat Possum began recording other Hill Country Blues musicians. Unfortunately the label quickly ran into the problem that many of the musicians they recorded were usually older and in very poor health. Sadly, many of them died before or shortly after their album got released. Down but not out Fat Possum Records kept plugging along and in 2000 they released a record by a 59 year-old construction worker named Robert Belfour.
Robert Belfour was born in 1940 in Red Banks, Mississippi. Growing up in the Hill Country, he was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar by watching his father play. As his interest in the guitar grew he began performing for friends and family at picnics. He continued his musical education by watching local legends like Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough who both lived in the area and regularly performed at parties and in local Juke-Joints. Unfortunately when Robert was just 13 years old his father passed away and he was forced to get a job in order support the family. Then in 1959 Robert got married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He worked in construction for the next 35 years and only played music when he had time. In fact, it was until the late 80’s when he really began to take music seriously again. His first real break came in 1994 he was featured on the compilation album THE SPIRIT LIVES ON, DEEP SOUTH COUNTRY BLUES & SPIRITUALS. The recordings he contributed to the record got the attention of Fat Possum Records and in the year 2000 the label issued his debut album WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. A dark-acoustic record, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU showcased Roberts percussive guitar work and rich deep voice. The album featured a mixture of originals and covers, many of which had been made popular by other Hill Country Blues musicians. The album was a success with many Blues enthusiasts and introduced Robert to an international audience.
In 2003 Robert released his second album on Fat Possum, the humorously titled, PUSHIN’ MY LUCK. Like it’s predecessor, the album was primarily acoustic and pleased both fans and critics. Internationally, Robert’s popularity grew and he started to play a number of European Blues festivals. Back in the states, Robert kept his home in Memphis and continued to be a regular performer on the Juke-Joint scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi. A dynamic performer into his 70’s, Robert’s shows would usually last late into the the night and sometimes be as long as three hours! Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Robert Balfour passed away at his home in Memphis on February 25, 2015. Fortunately for us (and thanks to the good folks at Fat Possum Records) his recordings are still readily available and can be found on iMusic, Spotify, Amazon, and at your local record store.
James Govan might be the best singer you’ve never heard of. A staple of the local music scene for many years, James Govan was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1949. His first big break came in 1967 when his talent caught the attention of songwriter/producer George Jackson. Jackson, who at the time was a songwriter for the legendary Muscle Shoals record label FAME, immediately recognized there was something special in James’ voice and decided to introduced him to FAME Records owner Rick Hall. Hall also heard potential and soon after their meeting James starting recording sides for FAME. While the material was strong and James would go on to recorded a number of songs for FAME between 1969 and 1972 the label only released a few of them as singles. In fact, most of the music went unreleased until 2013 when the good people at ACE Records complied and released James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings. Even though none of these recordings were big hits it’s still an amazing body of work that’s essential to any Soul music fan’s record collection.
After his time with FAME, James went back to Beale Street where he became a regular performer in blues clubs. He released one album in 1982 which went nowhere and after that didn’t release any new music until the 1990’s. He saw some success again in 1993 when his performance at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy made him a popular performer in Europe. He then released another album in 1996 but like his previous albums, it failed to draw any attention. James may have never had that “big hit record” but he always delivered the good live. He was a regular performer at the famous Run-Boogie Cafe in Memphis for over 20 years.
Sadly James passed on July 18, 2014. Fortunately his amazing talent will live on through his recordings and hopefully in time make James Govan into a household name. You can purchase James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings here
Mavis Staples is a living legend. Over the past 60 years she’s not only brought Gospel music to the masses but she’s also been a voice of hope and strength for those fighting for Civil Rights. Her career started in Chicago during the late 1940’s when she and her siblings would perform in churches alongside their father, the legendary Roebuck “Pops” Staples. With a sound that was rooted in Southern Gospel and Delta Blues “The Staple Singers” soon became local favorites and in the early 50′s began recording sides for labels like VeeJay, Riverside, and Checker. In addition to gospel music fans the band was also embraced by the folk music scene during the folk revival of late 50′s and early 60′s. It was during this time that the band became very active in the civil rights movement and regularly performed at rallies and events hosted by Dr. Martin Luther King.
In the late 60′s and early 70′s the music scene was changing and the band changed right along with it. They signed with the legendary STAX Records and under the guidance of STAX A&R man Al Bell they started adopting more of a Soul-Gospel style. Their music might have become a little funkier but it still contained the same message of hope, love and compassion. Songs like “Respect Yourself“, and “I’ll Take You There” made the band a household name and catapulted them into stardom. Unfortunately, due to some questionable business decisions by Al Bell STAX Records filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and was forced to shutdown.
The Staples pressed on and over the next several years put out several releases for a variety of different labels. While they had success with their 1975 album LET’S DO IT AGAIN the group mostly was out of the spotlight until the 1990’s. During the 2000’s Mavis continued to perform and release solo albums. Paired with producers such as Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, these records introduced Mavis to a whole new audience. In 2013 her Jeff Tweedy-produced album You Are Not Alone won a Grammy for “Best Americana Album”.
This year Mavis will turn 75 years young and she’s just as popular as ever. People all over the world still cram into venues to see her perform and she’s a regular musical guest on late-nite TV. Her music still carries with it a message of hope and tolerance. A message that reminds us that even though there have been victories in the struggle for civil rights, the fight is far from over.
STAPLE SINGERS/MAVIS STAPLES SUGGESTED LISTENING
The Staple Singers: Uncloudy Day (VeeJay)
The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Epic/Legacy)
The Staple Singers: Be Attitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)
The Staple Singers: The Staple Swingers (Stax)
The Staple Singers: The Best of The Staple Singers (Stax)
Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti) produced by Ry Cooder
Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy
Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy