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
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.
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
LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS EMMA JEAN Truth & Soul Records
For Fans of: Issac Hayes, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Charles Bradley
This summer Lee Fields & The Expressions are back on the scene with a new record full of sweet soul music! Entitled Emma Jean in honor of Lee’s late mother, this record finds the band incorporating more elements of Folk and Gospel into their sound more then they have in the past. In fact, the album’s first single is a soulful version of the J.J. Cale tune “Magnolia”. Sounding a little like Solomon Burke, Lee croons his way through this Folk classic with help from pedal-steel guitar master Russ Pahl. While the song is stylistically a little different then songs Lee and his band have done in the past, they still sound great. That being said, Emma Jean has something for everyone. Fans of classic hard-soul will enjoy songs like “In the Woods” and “Stone Angel” while fans of the teary-eyed ballads will have a new favorite song in “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. The album’s standout track however is the piano-driven “Eye to Eye”. In this song the band sways back and forth while Lee pleads with his lover to take him back. Singing like his life depends on it, Lee is clearly still at the top of his game. For a guy who’s been releasing music since 1969, this album might be his crowning achievement.
RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STORY OF STAX RECORDS Bloomsbury USA
Author Robert Gordon has been writing about the music of Memphis for almost 30 years. In Respect Yourself: The Story of STAX Records Mr. Gordon not only tells the story of STAX but also the story of the Civil Rights movement in Memphis. Passionately written and meticulously researched this book takes you from the label’s meager beginnings in a garage outside Memphis to it’s bankruptcy in 1975. Along with Mr. Gordon’s narration you hear from the people that made STAX happen, making this book one of a kind.
A LITTLE STAX HISTORY…
Started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957, STAX Records was more then just a record label. It was a voice in the community. The label’s open door policy made it possible for anyone to come in off the street and set up an audition. It didn’t matter where you were from or what the color of your skin was, you were welcomed at STAX as long as you had a passion for music.
Right from the beginning STAX did things it’s own way. Segregation may have been alive and well in Memphis during the 1960’s, but that didn’t stop STAX founder Jim Stewart from hiring an African American DJ named Al Bell to be his lead promotions man. Working together side by side Jim, Estelle, and Al turned STAX records from a little indie label into a household name! STAX artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, and William Bell put the label on the map with singles that started appearing on the R&B and Pop charts. Money was coming in and things were really rolling, until one very dark December day in 1967…
Today many people can remember exactly where they were when they learned that the plane carrying Otis Redding and The Bar-Keys went down. Otis was the soul of STAX and the voice of soul music. A few months later while the people of STAX were still grieving over the loss of Otis and the Bar Keys their world was rocked again. On the evening of April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Needless to say, after the assassination of Dr. King everything was different, especially in Memphis. If all this wasn’t enough, the label’s distributor Atlantic Records ended it’s relationship with STAX. With it’s biggest star gone and no way to get music to the stores most label’s would have called it a day, but most labels didn’t have Al Bell. It was then that Al and the folks at STAX hunkered down and staged one of the biggest comebacks in music history.
The early 70’s found STAX again at the top of the Soul music world. This time around STAX would reach heights that were even greater then it did in the 1960’s. Al Bell gained full control of the label and STAX rode the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, and The Staple Singers all the way to the top of the charts. Sadly this rebirth would be short lived as some questionable business decisions and over expatiation lead to STAX eventually having to declaring bankruptcy in 1975.
All that said, STAX has lived on in many different ways. Many of their artists are still celebrated today and have found new audiences. Artists such as William Bell, Mavis Staples, and Eddie Floyd still perform and continue to release new music while others like Sam Moore are mostly retired but still appear at the occasional music festival. The studio was rebuilt and is now a museum (possibly the best museum in Memphis not named The National Civil Rights museum). There is also the Stax Music Academy, a music school that is focused on providing music education to local youth. So while the days of Otis roaming the halls and Al Bell running the office might be gone all is not lost. The future of Stax is very bright.