Reverend John Wilkins is a gospel blues guitarist and vocalist based in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the son of the influential prewar blues musician Reverend Robert Wilkins, and also currently serves as the pastor for the Hunter’s Chapel Church in Como, Mississippi.
Wilkins was born in Memphis in 1943 and remembers his father discussing his musical career with his family. “He would sit down and talk to us, about how he played the blues and wrote these songs, how the Rolling Stones got their name from him, and how they recorded ‘The Prodigal Son’ over again.” The elder Wilkins was a blues guitarist before he became a minister. However, rather than discard his old songs for new ones, “he kept the music and changed the lyrics to some of the songs he wrote.” Thus “That’s No Way To Get Along,” originally recorded for the Brunswick label in 1929, was reborn on his 1964 Piedmont/Jazz Origin Library release Memphis Gospel Singer as “The Prodigal Son.” The Stones were inspired in turn to record their own version of the latter song on their 1968 album Beggar’s Banquet.
John Wilkins was playing guitar alongside his father in church as young as five years old and says that his guitar ability was “a gift from God. I really don’t know how I got started, but I know after I got started, that he would show me stuff, and I’d watch him. He always told me to play my own music, play my own style.” Wilkins describes his personal style as making “every string sound good. A lot of musicians blunt the sound. But you’ve got six strings, and the six strings were meant to be played, every string making its own sound. And that’s what I like in my style – I like every string to speak for itself.”
By age nine Wilkins was playing for gospel groups around Memphis. When he was fourteen, a traveling band passing through on their way to New Orleans attempted to recruit him, but his mother refused when she realized they weren’t gospel performers. As he became older, he eventually added blues to his repertoire, playing at area jukes on Friday and Saturday nights while continuing to play gospel music on Sundays. He was also called sometimes to sit in on sessions at Stax Records and played guitar for O.V. Wright on his Back Beat release “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry.”
His mother admonished that he could not play both blues and gospel, and an incident in which he caught pneumonia while at a juke confirmed this for her. Afterwards, Wilkins did not play blues as much, and finally gave it up altogether when he joined the M & N Singers. “I realized I couldn’t be in both places at the same time, so I had to make a choice,” he says.
Wilkins has been the pastor at Hunter’s Chapel since 1985. Following a path similar to his father’s, he still retains blues elements in his gospel music. “I want to keep the old sound. They call it ‘blues sound,’ but I just call it ‘music sound,’ and I put gospel lyrics with some of it – something I don’t think too many people are doing.”
“I haven’t read nowhere in the Bible where the music will take you to hell. So I’m trying to do this with a religious basis, using gospel lyrics with that type of sound. And so far, it’s sounding all right to me!”
It’s sounding all right to audiences as well. In the last four years, Wilkins’ music has been attracting more interest; he has performed all over the country, and in 2009 he traveled to England for the first time. His major-label debut is scheduled for release on Sony in spring 2010.
Rev. John Wilkins performing “Prodigal Son” at the 2008 North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic: http://www.vimeo.com/2200674
Also see Bill Steber’s article “John Wilkins: Prodigal Son” in Living Blues #189 – Vol. 38, #2, April 2007: pp. 34-39.