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Robert Wilkins

It sounds like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had heard the late-1920s song "That's No Way to Get Along" by the Reverend Robert Wilkins, because the Rolling Stones album track "Prodigal Son" is almost a direct copy, at least to the point in the road where the imitation of Wilkins' guitar style hits a technical roadblock. Yet the early pressings of the Stones' cover listed the writers as Jagger and Richards, a deception that was only corrected following legal action. According to the Stones, the mistake was inadvertent and happened because the original artwork for the Beggars Banquet album had to be redone. Because a publisher connected with the original Vocalion label had nabbed the actual collecting rights to the song, this unfortunately did not result in a financial windfall for Wilkins, although he did take advantage of the '60s roots music revival and performed both concerts and new recordings in the absolute prime of his musical power. A mix of Afro-American and Cherokee Indian, Wilkins hailed from De Soto County, Mississippi, the famous stomping grounds of the Delta blues. His later fight with the powerful Rolling Stones probably didn't seem like much of a hassle compared to what he went through growing up. His father was kicked out of the state due to bootlegging activities. His mother made a better choice with her second husband, the fine guitarist Tim Oliver, who taught his new stepson quite a bit. Other country-blues musicians would come by the house to jam, the source of further musical knowledge hanging in the air. By the time he was 15, Wilkins was performing and making money at dances and parties. He relocated to Memphis with his mother when he was in his early twenties, and as a result, he encountered an equal mix of the Delta blues and Memphis styles. He stayed in Memphis and mingled with many of the great blues talents who passed through, including Charley Patton and Furry Lewis. He taught Memphis Minnie a good deal of her guitar style. Wilkins' early performing life included touring with small vaudeville and minstrel shows. In 1928, he met Ralph Peer of the Victor label and was invited to cut four songs, after which Wilkins was invited to perform on a one-hour radio program, making him one of the first Black artists to make a live radio appearance in Memphis. Vocalion, a main rival in the race records business, dispatched a microphone-toting field unit about a year later, doing the competition one better by recording eight new Wilkins songs as the Roaring Twenties roared out. These sessions produced "That's No Way to Get Along," which he had no qualms about re-titling "Prodigal Son" on his own new versions of the track he recorded in the '60s. The song's status as a hit gave him particular license as its creator to push it heavily during his later career revival and a ten-minute version recorded for the Piedmont album Memphis Gospel Singer is one of the rare masterpieces of extended blues. His first efforts at recording continued in 1935, when he laid down five more blues songs, backed this time by a second guitarist and a wonderful spoon player. During this year, his philosophy of life went through a radical switch, the catalyst being the casual violence and sleazy atmosphere of one of the typical house party gigs that he played. Apparently, it was enough to make him believe this music really was an instrument of Satan. He joined the Church of God in Christ and became a minister with a specialty in healing and herbal remedies, his wares ranging from gospel to gingko. Although it seemed like a radical change in lifestyle, the actual musical effects were almost nil. He went on playing guitar exactly the same way, but stuck to a repertoire of gospel numbers. Often, parts of an old guitar arrangement would be reworked: the sexy "My Baby" was changed into the devout "My Lord," for example. His efforts in this style hold up well in comparison to the monsters of gospel blues such as Blind Willie Johnson or Blind Joe Taggart, and Wilkins also has the light-fingered steel-string charm of Rev. Gary Davis or Mississippi John Hurt. The continuing guitar workout as a minister meant his chops were in plenty fine shape when he was "rediscovered" in the '60s. A better description would be to say he was lured from the churches back out into the secular concert world. Of all the blues musicians unearthed during this period -- some of whom looked like they had literally been pulled out of the ground -- Wilkins was one of the easiest to find. Based on a rumor that Wilkins had been corresponding with an elderly British blues collector, which he actually hadn't been, another blues enthusiast checked the Memphis phone book and found Wilkins' name right there. Wilkins performed and recorded plenty of gospel material along with the blues, including cutting a full album devoted to sacred songs. The grandson of this great bluesman wrote a biography of Wilkins, To Profit a Man, which was published in Memphis by Museum Publishing in 1995.
© Eugene Chadbourne /TiVo

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