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John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



Early Blues Interview
John Wilkins, gospel singer/songwriter/blues guitarist


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 state line.

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 that includes generations 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.

As 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 Memphis.

(Source: Big Legal Mess Records - offshoot of Fat Possum Records)


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 great now!  

Alan:      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.

Alan:     You 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.

Alan:      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.

Alan:      How much did your father influence you in your music writing and playing?

John:     Lots, lots, lots. 

Prodigal Son performed by Reverend John Wilkins from Highway61 on Vimeo.

Alan:      And did you have any other influences?

John:     I used to do a little boxing, I did a bit of prize fighting back in my younger days.

Alan:      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.

Alan:      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 there.

Alan:      What are 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.

Alan:      And you followed his footsteps and moved from blues music to the church.

John:     That’s right!

Alan:      What are your thoughts on secular and sacred music?  Here in England we often call it “the other side of the coin”.

John:     (Laughing)  Well, I tell a lot of people I didn't stop dancin' just changed partners you know.

Alan:      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.

Alan:      I’ve actually 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?

John:     Oh, well, I remember Otha Turner [See footnote (3) below] and  Napoleon Strickland [See footnote (4) below] and another guy I can't think of his name right now;  a lot of them was there you know.

Alan:      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 at all?

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.

Alan:      You have a love of motorbikes and you’re known as the 'Bikers’ Preacher'.  How did that come about?

John:     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'.

Biker's Preacher from UM Media Documentary Projects on Vimeo.

Alan:      Are there any particular songs that you play that have special meaning to you?

John:     Well, I suppose all of my songs have special meaning because I try to make songs that have some kind of meaning and appeal to them.

Alan:      Could you tell me a little bit about the making of your debut album, 'You Can’t Hurry God'?  How did that come about?

John:     Well that came about because I was just sitting playing and Amos Harvey was at my church and we decided to record it.

Alan:      Tell me about the band that were with you.

John:     They got together and wanted to play with me so Amos brought them to me and we decided to put the band together.

Alan:      And I believe you are touring this year?

John:     Yes, I was over in Portugal in February and in Montana last July.

Alan:      I’ve been talking to Amos and we’d love to see you in England.  

Alan:      Thank you very much and thank you for your time.  And good luck with the album and have a wonderful year.


Many thanks to Amos Harvey for arranging the telephone interview with Reverend John Wilkins.

Reverend John Wilkin's new album available from Big Legal Mess Records



(1) Reverend Robert Wilkins

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 name).

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 Spottswood, 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 CC-BY-SA)

(2) M&N Gospel Singers - 'Where's The Road That Leads Home' album

Besides John 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).

(3) Otha Turner

Othar "Otha" 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 rivercanes.

Turner's Rising 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".

The title, 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: Wikipedia article Othar Turner, licensed under CC-BY-SA)

Here is a link to 'Gravel 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.

For more information on Otha Turner: www.othaturner.com

(4) Napoleon Strickland

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, Napoleon was 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)

(5) '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.
Wikipedia article Fred McDowell, licensed under CC-BY-SA)

(6) 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.
Wikipedia article Overton Park, licensed under CC-BY-SA) 


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