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)
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
CAN’T TURN ME AROUND Bible & Tire Records
For fans of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and The Staple Singers
The new record from the Dedicated Men of Zion reminds us that the lines between traditional gospel and R&B are blurry at best. Filled with foot-stomping rockers and swinging soulful ballads, CAN’T TURN ME AROUND, is just as appropriate for Saturday Night as it is for Sunday morning. Hailing from rural North Carolina the group has gone through a number of lineup changes since it’s incarnation in 2014. In 2018 the group’s current lineup, consisting of Anthony Daniels, Antoine Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg caught the attention of The Music Maker Relief Fund. The Music Maker Relief Fund is a non-profit organization that helps musicians in the rural south meet their day-to-day needs and promote their music. Even though the band was already popular regionally, working with the Music Maker Relief fund helped the group reach a larger audience and eventually find the ears of Bruce Watson’s Bible & Tire Record label.
The bottom line is that The Dedicated Men of Zion’s new record CAN’T TURN ME AROUND is a record that is desperately needed today. It’s inspiring, hopeful, and most of all reminds us that yes, things have been bad before but if we work together we can survive this and make it to the promised land.. whatever you deem that to be.
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.
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!