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

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: The Story of The Memphis Music Scene

take-me-to-the-river

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Directed by Martin Shore

Social Capital Films (Soundtrack available from Concord Music/STAX)

Few cities have played a bigger role in the development of popular music then the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Artists like B.B. King, Otis Redding, Elivs Presley, and Al Green all came to Memphis looking for opportunities that couldn’t be found in their hometowns. Overtime, artists like these changed the sound of the Memphis scene as well as the sound popular music, but they didn’t do it alone. Just as important as the artists, if not more in some cases, are the produces, songwriters, and label owners who took chances with them. The story of the Memphis music scene can’t be told without including people like Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, STAX A&R man Al Bell, STAX Founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and producer Willie Mitchell. These people put up money for studio time, did the promotion, produced the sessions, and in some cases even risked their lives for the music they believed in!  It took many different people from different backgrounds to make the Memphis music scene happen. Now thanks to a new documentary from director Martin Shore, the story of the Memphis music scene is finally be told the way it should be told… by the people who lived it.

Part history lesson, part musical tribute, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER not only tells the story of record labels like STAX and Hi-Records but also shows the recording of the movie’s soundtrack. Recorded in Memphis, the album version of TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (Stax/Concord Music Group) showcases legendary Memphis musicians performing alongside younger players who’ve been inspired by the music of Memphis. While not all the duets might be the perfect match up of artists there’s still something very heart warming about music bringing people from different backgrounds together.  One of the album’s the best duets is the pairing of 72 year-old Soul-Shouter Otis Clay and 12 year-old rapper P-nut on the track “Trying To Live My Life Without You”. Originally a hit for Otis in 1972 the song still sounds fresh. Otis is still in great vocal form and the band is right on the money. While some may view the addition of the 12 year-old P-Nut as some sort of gimmick, it’s anything but. P-Nut nails his part and sounds great. Also, you get the sense while watching the film that Otis legitimately enjoys listening to P-nut rap over his tune.

Another standout duet on the album is the match up of Mavis Staples with The North Mississippi All-Stars on “Wish I Had Answered”. Originally recorded by the Staple Singers in 1963, the song was selected by the All-Star’s own Luther Dickinson. Many times for these type of star-studded duet projects you get bands that sound a little flat even though they’re made up of top-notch studio musicians. This is not the case here. The All-Stars are students of American music and along with an outstanding vocal performance by Ms. Staples, they perfectly capture the original spirit of the tune. Pops would be proud.

If the movie has any faults, it’s only that the short lived Goldwax label isn’t mentioned. Producing singers such as James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, and The Ovations, this little label was started by former Sun Records guitarist Quinton Claunch in 1964. Unfortunately due to money issues and to Carr’s mental instability (he was the label’s star performer) the Goldwax was out of business in 1969. Still, during it’s short lifespan it was responsible for some of the most soulful music to ever come out of Memphis. Still, even without the mention of Goldwax TAKE ME TO THE RIVER gives the viewer and excellent in-depth look at the musical history of Memphis, as told by the people that lived it. Here’s hoping both the film and soundtrack inspire a younger generation to discover this music and make music history of their own.