Though born in Memphis,
Tennessee, in 1943, Reverend John Wilkins is a child of the North
Mississippi Hill Country. His mother was born in Holly Springs, MS and
his father was from Hernando, MS. While John grew up in the city, family
parties and neighbourhood picnics featuring country blues and fife and
drum bands were never farther than a short drive over the Mississippi
His father was the phenomenally talented and revered Robert Wilkins [See
footnote (1) below] who
had recorded blues during the 20’s and 30’s. It was his ‘That’s No Way
To Get Along’ that the Rolling Stones would cover for their ‘Beggars
Banquet’ album. By then Robert had forsaken his life as a bluesman for
over thirty years and had re-recorded this number in the 60’s as a
gospel song entitled ‘Prodigal Son’. He had developed a gospel style
that was based on his earlier country blues style - a style that
developed into the rock 'n' roll sound that Memphis, and then the world,
would later claim as it's own.
When the young John Wilkins was learning to play guitar, he picked up
his father's gospel and country blues styles. He also absorbed the
soulful sounds that were being pioneered by local musicians and recorded
by legendary Memphis labels like Sun and Stax. As he approached
adulthood in the 1960s, John could be found playing in church,
at parties, and at clubs. Like his father before him, John walked a
similar musical line between the sacred and secular. He spent most of
his time hustling gigs with bands in Memphis clubs like Dinos, The
Flamingo Lounge and the Club Handy often finding himself backing
visiting artists including the great James Carr. He also started hanging
around the various Stax recording studios in and around Memphis picking
up work as a studio musician. The wealth of talent in Memphis at that
time was so great and overwhelming that often he would be unaware who
the artists were that he was backing! During all this period he still
worked in gospel quartets and began a twenty year gig with the M&N
Gospel Singers. In 1963 he met and befriended O.V. Wright who was
looking for someone to play guitar, and so in 1965 John played guitar on
O.V. Wright's first secular recording ‘You Gonna Make Me Cry’. Then in
the early 70's, John recorded an album 'Where's The Road That Leads
Home' with the M&N Gospel Singers. [See
footnote (2) below].
In the early 1980's, John's life came full circle when he followed his
father's footsteps in a call to the ministry. He was ordained in 1983
and in 1985 became pastor of Hunter's Chapel Church in Tate County, just
outside Como, Mississippi. Ever since then John has led a congregation
of Tate County locals, as well as the late fife players Otha Turner [See
footnote (3) below] and Napoleon Strickland [See
footnote (4) below] and their families, and numerous
other regional parishioners and North Mississippi musicians. In earlier
times, legendary Hill Country bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell [See
footnote (5) below] and his wife Annie Mae were
members of Hunter's Chapel congregation. It was they who, in the mid
1960s first introduced the Hunter's Chapel Singers to the world on the
outstanding album 'Amazing Grace: Mississippi Delta Spirituals' on
Testament Records. Napoleon Strickland is buried at Hunter's Chapel
Church and Fred McDowell is buried a few miles away at Hammond Hill
Baptist Church, Como.
part of his pastoral duties John is able to combine his love of
motorbikes and the Lord by becoming the official National Pastor to the
King Riders Motorcycle Club where he is known as the ‘Biker’s Preacher’.
Now at 66 John has recorded his debut full-length album "You Can't Hurry
God", a CD of religious songs in which he showcases an individual sound
that can have only been made by a child of the North Mississippi Hill
Country. The recording is a culmination of a lifetime spent learning
from, and ministering to some of the luminaries of North Mississippi and
I have always been a great fan of Reverend Robert
Wilkins, both for his blues and religious music, with his name on my
all-time favourites list published on the 'Credentials' page of this
website. It was by chance that I received an email from a record
producer who noticed this, and mentioned that he had just produced a
debut album by Reverend John Wilkins, son of Reverend Robert Wilkins.
Several emails later it was arranged that I could interview John over
the phone. Here is the interview together with some additional notes and
videos. Alan White, Earlyblues.com
Alan: Hello John, Thank you for
agreeing to answer a few questions for earlyblues.com and I very
much appreciate your time. Tell me, what are your earliest musical memories
growing up in Memphis?
John: My memory's not
You're 66 now and I quite understand. Did you
always want to become a musician?
John: Well I always
have been one, for a long time.
are one of seven children to Robert and Ida Mae Wilkins, did any of your
brothers and sisters have any interest in music?
John: No, none of
them. Nobody but me.
Did you ever
perform alongside your father?
John: Yes, indeed. It
was great. I did a lot of performing with him in church plus I did a
concert with him in Memphis in 1968 in Overton Park Shell [See
Footnote (6) below]. That was an
old park in Memphis where Elvis Presley used to play.
How much did
your father influence you in your music writing and playing?
John: I used to do a
little boxing, I did a bit of prize fighting back in my younger days.
In your younger
days you used to play in local bands backing visiting artists.
Could you tell me a little about those days?
John: I started
playing with a Gospel group club when I was about 13 in Memphis. Then
when I got older, 17 or 18, I started messing around with two other guys
in groups and I still play in Gospel groups. I got a chance to play
with other guys in bands down in Mississippi.
Did you also work at Stax recording studios?
John: No, I didn’t
work there but I had a pass to go there and play with different people
your thoughts on your father’s early blues career?
John: My Dad had a
strange type of playing early blues, there was nobody like him and he
had his own style of playing. Most of the time I remember him playing
the blues but he stopped playing blues and started playing gospel.
followed his footsteps and moved from blues music to the church.
John: That’s right!
What are your
thoughts on secular and sacred music? Here in England we often call it “the other side of
Well, I tell a lot of people I didn't stop dancin' just changed partners
I believe it was in
the early ‘80s that you followed your father’s call to the Ministry,
becoming Pastor of Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Church in Como Mississippi. Have you been
there ever since?
John: I sure have, 26
years I’ve been here.
seen your church on one of my visits to the States but I didn’t realise
at the time that you were Pastor. I believe that your congregation has
included many North Mississippi Hill Country musicians – could you tell
me about some of them?
I’ve got an album which was recorded in 1966 called 'Amazing
Grace' with Fred McDowell and the Hunter’s Chapel Singers. Were you involved in that
John: No, I wasn’t
there then. I didn't get to Hunter's Chapel until 1985. The Pastor then
was OV Turner, he was there when I got there.
You have a love of motorbikes and you’re known as the 'Bikers’
Preacher'. How did that come about?
That's right. Well,
I’ve been riding bikes for a very long time, I started riding with the King
Riders Motorcycle Club in the ‘70s. So they
called me the Bikers’ Preacher because as I was pastor they come to the
church and I do a lot of their funerals and visit them in hospital and
stuff like that. And they gave me the tag of 'Biker's Preacher'.
Robert Timothy Wilkins (January 16, 1896 – May 26, 1987) was
born in Hernando, Mississippi, 21 miles from Memphis. He worked
in Memphis during the 1920s at the same time as Furry Lewis,
Memphis Minnie (whom he claimed to have tutored), and Son House.
He also organized a jug band to capitalize on the "jug band
craze" then in vogue. Though never attaining success comparable
to the Memphis Jug Band, Wilkins reinforced his local popularity
with a 1927 appearance on a Memphis radio station. Like Sleepy
John Estes (and unlike Gus Cannon of Cannon's Jug Stompers) he
recorded alone or with a single accompanist. He sometimes
performed as Tim Wilkins or as Tim Oliver (his stepfather's
His best known songs are "That's No Way To Get Along" (to which
he – an ordained minister since the 1930s – had changed the
'unholy' words to a biblical theme and since titled it "The
Prodigal Son", covered under that title by The Rolling Stones),
"Rolling Stone", and "Old Jim Canan's". Led Zeppelin also wrote
"Poor Tom", which was believed to have been influenced by
"That's No Way To Get Along".
Alarmed by fighting at a party where he was playing, he deserted
secular music and he took up the twin careers of herbalist and
minister in the Church of God in Christ in the 1930s, and began
playing gospel music with a blues feel.
During the 1960s blues revival the "Reverend" Robert Wilkins was
"rediscovered" by blues enthusiasts Dick and Louisa
making appearances at folk festivals and recording his gospel
blues for a new audience. These include the 1964 Newport Folk
Festival; his performance of "Prodigal Son" there was included
on the Vanguard album Blues at Newport, Volume 2. His
distinction was his versatility; he could play ragtime, blues,
minstrel songs, and gospel with equal facility. Wilkins died in
May 1987 in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 91. (Source: Wikipedia article
Robert Wilkins, licensed under
M&N Gospel Singers - 'Where's The
Road That Leads Home' album
Wilkins other members of the M&N Gospel Singers at the time of
recording this album were: Henry Taylor, Otha Roy Herron, Jimmy
Wright, Samuel Sanders, Roosevelt Webster, Joe Jones and Earl
Biggs. According to the notes on the backcover of the album the
group was formally organized in 1937. Besides their album on
Designer the M&N Gospel Singers also released an album on Delmy
Gospel and a 45 on Contact. (Source: 'Just
Moving On' website dedicated to the 'seventies'
quartet gospel tradition).
Turner (June 2, 1907 – February 26, 2003) was one of the last
well-known fife players in the vanishing American fife and drum
blues tradition. He was born in Madison County, Mississippi, and
lived his entire life in northern Mississippi as a farmer, where
in 1923, aged 16, he learned to play fifes fashioned out of
Star Fife and Drum Band (which consisted of friends and
relatives) primarily played at farm parties. They began to
receive wider recognition in the 1990s. They appeared on
Mississippi Blues in Memphis Vol. 1 in 1993, followed by
inclusion in many other blues collections. They released their
own critically acclaimed album Everybody Hollerin' Goat
in 1998. This was followed by From Senegal to Senatobia
in 1999, which combined bluesy fife and drum music with
musicians credited as "the Afrossippi Allstars".
Everybody Hollerin' Goat, refers to a tradition Turner began
in the late 1950s of hosting Labor Day picnics where he would
personally butcher and cook a goat in an iron kettle, and his
band would provide musical entertainment. The picnics began as a
neighborhood and family gathering; it grew over the years to
attract musical fans, first from Memphis, Tennessee, and later
from all over the world.
The song, "Shimmy
She Wobble", from Everybody Hollerin' Goat was featured
in the 2002 film Gangs of New York. Martin Scorsese, the
film's director, featured Othar Turner in his 2003 PBS
mini-series "The Blues" as a link between African rhythms and
American blues. The concept was continued on the 2003 album
Mississippi to Mali by Corey Harris. The album was dedicated
to Othar, who died a week before he was scheduled to record for
the album. His granddaughter and protégé Shardé Thomas, then 12
years old, filled in for the recording sessions. Othar died in
Gravel Springs, Mississippi, aged 95, on February 26, 2003. His
daughter, Bernice Turner Pratcher, who had been living in a
nursing home for some time suffering from breast cancer, died
the same day, aged 48. A joint funeral service was held on March
4, 2003, in Como, Mississippi. A procession leading to the
cemetery was led by the Rising Star and Fife Band, with Shardé
Thomas, then 13 years old, at its head playing the fife. (Source:
Othar Turner, licensed under
Here is a link to
Springs Fife and Drum' - "a compelling and
award-winning video portrait of Othar Turner, his music and
their role in the Gravel Springs community" made in 1971 by
David Evens, Bill Ferris and Judy Peiser.
Napolian (this is
the correct spelling, though it also appears frequently as the
more common Napoleon) Strickland was born on October 6,
1924 near Como, Mississippi, where he lived most of his life.
He was originally introduced to the fife by his father, but it
was the great Othar Turner, nearly 20 years his senior, who
taught him how to make his own instruments and how to work their
magic. He also played the guitar, which he first learned through
a homemade diddley-bow, and the harmonica. He was always willing
to pass along the tradition of how to make the cane fifes to
whomever asked; a process he accomplished by marking the
finger-hole locations with spit and a pocket-knife, then burning
them in with a hot poker.
Napolian was a
reputed energetic performer in the region for several decades,
possessing the power behind the fife to be clearly heard above
the three drummers he played with. He was so beloved by the
people of Como that in the early 1980s, they proclaimed an
official "Napolian Strickland Day" in his honor. Later
in the mid-1980s, Napoleonwas involved in an automobile
accident, suffering injuries that forced him to retire. He soon
moved into a care home in Senatobia, Mississippi, having lost
partial use of his left arm. Though incapacitated in this
manner, Napolian was still pleased to have visitors,
occasionally requesting his caretakers to bring out his
harmonica from the locked cabinet where it was kept, in order to
entertain as long as his strength permitted. Napolian Strickland
lived the remainder of his days in this home, but will be fondly
remembered through the music of the Northern Mississippi Hill
Country for years to come in the guise of the performers his
percussive music influenced, most notably The North
Mississippi All Stars. (Source:
Cascade Blues Association)
'Mississippi' Fred McDowell
Fred McDowell (January 12, 1904 - July 3, 1972) was born in
Rossville, Tennessee, near Memphis. His parents, who were
farmers, died when McDowell was a youth. He started playing
guitar at the age of 14 and played at dances around Rossville.
Wanting a change from plowing fields, he moved to Memphis in
1926 where he started to work in the Buck-Eye feed mill where
they processed cotton into oil and other products. He also had a
number of other jobs and played music for tips. Later in 1928 he
moved south into Mississippi to pick cotton. He settled in Como,
Mississippi, about 40 miles south of Memphis, in 1940 or 1941,
and worked steadily as a farmer, continuing to perform music at
dances and picnics. Initially he played slide guitar using a
pocket knife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone, later
switching to a glass slide for its clearer sound. He played with
the slide on his ring finger.
While commonly lumped together with Delta Blues singers,
McDowell actually may be considered the first of the bluesmen
from the 'North Mississippi' region - parallel to, but somewhat
east of the Delta region - to achieve widespread recognition for
his work. A version of the state's signature musical form
somewhat closer in structure to its African roots (often
eschewing the chord change for the hypnotic effect of the
droning, single chord vamp), the North Mississippi style (or at
least its aesthetic) may be heard to have been carried on in the
music of such figures as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside,
while serving as the original impetus behind creation of the Fat
Possum record label out of Oxford, Mississippi. The 1950s
brought a rising interest in blues music and folk music in the
United States and McDowell was brought to wider public
attention, beginning when he was discovered and recorded in 1959
by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. McDowell's records were
popular, and he performed often at festivals and clubs. McDowell
continued to perform blues in the North Mississippi blues style
much as he had for decades, but he sometimes performed on
electric guitar rather than acoustic guitar. While he famously
declared "I do not play no rock and roll," McDowell was not
averse to associating with many younger rock musicians: He
coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique, and was
reportedly flattered by The Rolling Stones' rather
straightforward, authentic version of his "You Gotta Move" on
their 1971 Sticky Fingers album.
McDowell's 1969 album I Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll was
his first featuring electric guitar. It features parts of an
interview in which he discusses the origins of the blues and the
nature of love. (This interview was sampled and mixed into a
song, also titled "I Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll" by Dangerman
in 1999.) McDowell's final album, Live in New York
(Oblivion Records), was a concert performance from November 1971
at the Village Gaslight (aka The Gaslight Cafe), Greenwich
Village, New York.
McDowell died of cancer in 1972, aged 68, and was buried at
Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia,
Mississippi. On August 6, 1993 a memorial was placed on his
grave site by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. The ceremony was
presided over by Dick Waterman, and the memorial with McDowell's
portrait upon it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. The memorial
stone was a replacement for an inaccurate and damaged marker
(McDowell's name was misspelled) and the original stone was
subsequently donated by McDowell's family to the Delta Blues
Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. (Source:
Fred McDowell, licensed under
Overton Park Shell
The Overton Park
Shell Theater was built in 1936 by the City of Memphis and the
Works Progress Administration (WPA). Designed by architect Max
Furbringer, it was modeled after similar shells in Chicago, New
York, and St. Louis. The WPA built 27 band shells, the Overton
Park Shell is one of only a few that still remain. It was where
Elvis Presley on July 30, 1954.
During the 1930s
and 1940s, the Shell was the site of Memphis Open Air Theater
orchestral shows, along with various light opera and musicals.
However, on July 30, 1954, Elvis Presley gave his first paid
concert here, opening for headliner Slim Whitman, performing
what music historians call the first-ever rock and roll show.
In the mid-1960s,
the Shell was turned over to the Memphis Arts Center, who
planned to raze it in order to build a $2 million theater.
However, a campaign led by Noel Gilbert, long-time conductor of
the Memphis Concert Orchestra, gathered 6,000 signatures in
order to prevent its destruction. Later, in 1972, the Shell was
nearly removed in order to build a parking garage, but was again
saved by the outcry from the community.
In 1982, the
National Conference of Christians and Jews proposed a
restoration, and the Shell was renamed in honor of Raoul
Wallenberg. However, they could not raise the necessary funds,
so by 1984, the previous plan for a parking lot began once
again. This time, the Shell was saved by Mayor Richard Hackett.
He pledged to fund a renovation if a private group would
spearhead an arts program.
In 1985, the Shell
lay dormant for the first time in its history. In 1986, a
corporation was formed by private citizens named Save Our Shell,
Inc. For the following 20 years, Save Our Shell presented
hundreds of free programs there.
In 2007, the Shell
was renamed Levitt Shell at Overton Park and a large-scale
renovation funded by the Levitt Foundation was begun. The
renovation was conducted by Memphis firm Askew Nixon Ferguson
Architects with state-of-the-art audio and visual design. With
the completion of the renovations in 2008, free concerts are now
once again held in the Shell.
Overton Park, licensed under