REV. JOHN WILKINS: A TRIBUTE

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,
Mississippi.

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

MUSIC FOR THE SOUL

You don’t need to be religious to enjoy religious music. Almost every style of popular music has roots in gospel music, so if the “message” isn’t doing it for you, the music probably will.  Personally, I am not a religious person, but some of my favorite recordings are by artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Staple Singers, and The Dixie Hummingbirds. In the 40’s and 50’s gospel performers like these filled arenas and stadiums! Granted it was a different time but still that’s a pretty impressive feat. I could go on and on here but in the interest of time and space I’ll just say that if you want to read more of my thoughts on the subject of gospel and religious music please see my previous post here…  https://www.bottleneckcafe.com/2018/07/gospel-music-is-the-roots/

While the “Golden Age Of Gospel” may have ended in the 1950’s, there still are plenty of wonderful groups today performing good ol’ traditional gospel music. Now thanks to record man Bruce Watson’s new label BIBLE & TIRE Recording Co. some of that music will be more readily available to the masses. Watson has big plans for BIBLE & TIRE. Not only is the label going to be reissuing recordings by lesser known artists but they also plan to release newly record music as well. As Watson was one of the driving forces behind Fat Possum records kick-starting the Mississippi Hill-Country Blues revival, there’s no doubt that the new releases from BIBLE & TIRE will be essential listening for fans of American roots music.   

The first of the two initial releases from BIBLE & TIRE is a collection of recordings by ELIZABETH KING & THE GOSPEL SOULS. Recorded in the 1970’s for the D-VINE Spirituals label in Memphis, many of these tracks have never seen the light of day until now.  The music here is top-shelf and the recording quality is crystal clear.  King’s powerful voice is front and center in the mix and leads the way on tracks such as “Jesus is My Captain”, “I Found Him”, and “I Heard the Voice”.  While King is obviously the star here, the rest of the group is equally talented when given the spotlight. The guys take center stage on the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away” and make it sound fresh and new. Even though I have many other versions of this tune in my musical library I found myself listening to this track over and over. This record is essential for anyone who wants to hear no-frills authentic southern gospel music. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last we hear of Elizabeth King and The Gospel Sounds.  

The second of the two initial releases from BIBLE & TIRE is a newly recorded album by THE SENSATIONAL BARNES BROTHERS. Entitled NOBODY’S FAULT BUT MY OWN, the album is the brothers take on classic gospel recordings from the Designer Records label.  Along with Watson, the Barnes went through hundreds of recordings and handpicked songs to use for this album.  Recorded in Memphis and produced by Watson himself this album has a wonderful vintage sound and finds the brothers sounding like a gospel-version of Sam & Dave! While the whole album is strong, the album’s stand out track for me is the Brothers’ version of Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”.  While this tune has been re-recorded many times before by many different artists it’s never sounded like this! Featuring a strong back-beat, wailing organ, and in-your-face horns, this song  is now full on dance number. Hopefully Pops would approve. The musical overtone of the tune might be more upbeat then the original but the message is still just as powerful. 

Regardless of your stance on organized religion, if you’re a fan of American Roots music, you need both these albums in your collection. Both will serve you well regardless of whether you play them Saturday or Sunday morning. 

GOSPEL MUSIC IS THE ROOTS?

The late great Willie Dixon once said “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits”.  While it might be taboo to disagree with a musical legend like Dixon (especially while he was alive as he was also a 300-lbs boxer), I must respectfully do so.  In my personal opinion, it is Gospel and spiritual music that we have to credit with being the musical tree that provided us with most all other forms of popular music.
While popular music may have evolved further and further away from it’s roots in Gospel and spiritual music over the years you can still hear the genre’s influence in some of today’s popular music.  Example, when you listen to artists like Beyonce’, Childish Gambino, and Bruno Mars you can definitely hear that somewhere along the way they were influenced, maybe indirectly, by artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.  James, Aretha, and Ray were all influenced heavily by Gospel music.  Aretha grew up in the in the church, Ray took a song by the little known gospel group The Southern Tones and turned it into “I Got A Women”, and Mr. Brown’s stage show was basically a secular version of a baptist revival. Same with Country music. You’d be hard pressed to find a country artist today that wasn’t inspired by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, or George Jones in some way.  Each of those artists recorded gospel albums over their long and impressive careers.  Rock music? Same thing.  Most modern rock bands in some way have been inspired by artists like The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, etc. Those artists listened to the Blues and Blues came from Gospel and spiritual music. We could talk about how Jamaican Reggae and Ska musicians listened to Blues, R&B, and Gospel music in the 1950’s over radio waves they picked up from America, but my feeling is you’re getting my point. The roots of most genres of popular music begin in Gospel and spiritual music.
Now, while one might enjoy the melodies in Gospel music there still might be a hang up when it comes to the lyrics.  I totally understand that.  Personally I am not a religious person and identify more as an atheist. Still, I LOVE classic gospel and spiritual music!  I love the passion in the music and the wonderful melodies.  Also, I appreciate how Gospel music has helped a lot of folks through some very rough times in history.  So while I may not have all the same beliefs as the person singing the music I am still able to enjoy the music.
Here are some of my favorite Gospel albums and artists that I hope you’ll check out.
STAPLE SINGERS
FREEDOM HIGHWAY epic records
 While a live album of the same name was released in 1965 (which is also excellent) this record is compiled of studio versions of Gospel classics such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, and “Wade In The Water”.  The record also features probably the best song band leader Roebuck “Pops” Staples ever wrote, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. Pops wrote the song after watching the events surrounding “The Little Rock Nine” unfold on television.  The song became a hit not only for the Staple Singers but also an anthem of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s.
BROTHER JOHN SELLERS
BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGS smithsonian folkways recordings
Born in Mississippi in 1924, Brother John Sellers was one of the best (and most underrated) Blues/Gospel singers ever to record. His larger-then-life voice is best showcased here on his 1959 album BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGSSellers was discovered by the great Mahalia Jackson when he was a youngster performing in local gospel showcases.  As an adult he became an in-demand entertainer performing all over the world with legends like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Jo Jones, and Jackson herself. He passed away from diabetes related complications in 1999.
MAHALIA JACKSON:
MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH columbia records
During Mahalia Jackson’s impressive career she introduced millions of music lovers all over the world to Gospel music. She inspired artists such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, performed for world leaders, and was a powerful presence in the civil rights movement.  While she has hundreds of recordings my personal favorite is MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH.  The material is mostly up beat and beautifully recorded. Even though this record came out later in Jackson’s career her voice has never sounded better.
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
20th CENTRY MASTERS COLLECTION
MCA Records
Few Gospel vocal groups have been more influential then The Dixie Hummingbirds. During the 1940’s and 50’s (generally referred to as “The Golden Age of Gospel”), they were megastars. They packed arenas, paved the way for future vocal groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops, and sold piles of records.  You can even trace their influence to modern pop groups like Boys II Men and N’Sync.  While the Hummingbirds have many recordings available a great place to start is their “best of” collection “THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS 20th CENTURY MASTERS”. This collection gives you a good overview of their sound and features their Grammy winning hit “Loves Me Like A Rock”.
THE SOUL STIRRERS
JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS
ABKCO Music & Records
The Soul Stirrers were another group that were megastars during the Gospel’s golden age.  While they are best known for being the group that kick-started Sam Cooke’s career in the 1950’s, the group’s origins go back to the mid 1930’s.  With Cooke in the group the Stirrers achieved rockstar-like status and recorded several hits for Specialty Records.  While the group was at their musical best when they were with Cooke, my personal favorite collection of theirs is JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS.  This collection features recordings the group did for Sam Cooke’s own record label SAR Records after he had officially left the group. Many of these recordings were produced by Cooke himself and show that even in their later years the group was one of the very best vocal Gospel groups.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
GOSPEL OF THE BLUES
MCA RECORDS

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.

While there are many recordings of Sister Rosetta available a good place to start when wanting to learn more about her music is a collection of her early recordings entitled THE GOSPEL OF THE BLUES.  This collection is complied of tracks recorded 1938 – 1948 and features a dynamite version of her hit “Shout, Sister, Shout”. The record also features a number of her recordings with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra and the Sammy Price Trio. These tracks show that Sister Rosetta could swing as hard as she could rock!