Robert Wilkins

Robert Wilkins : “Prodigal Son”

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In 1931, his beloved wife lay dying, so Wilkins got down on his knees to make a deal.  He said Lord, if you save my baby I’ll be a preacher, I’ll put up my secular guitar and I won’t sing for money any more. 

When she got up from the bed, Wilkins kept his word.  He quit the wanderer’s world, and used his guitar to praise God instead.

When his music was re-discovered in 1964, his early secular recordings had gained a following, but by that time he’d changed his lyrics to reflect his holy ways.

The rollin’ and tumblin’ of those early records, cut on a borrowed guitar with a broken neck, was long done.  The heartbroken womanizer of his most famous side, 1929’s That’s No Way to Get Along, was revisioned as the New Testament parable’s Prodigal Son.

Yes, it’s the same poor boy sitting at the Beggars Banquet with the Rolling Stones. 

Here it is, from his great return in 1964, Robert Wilkins: “Prodigal Son.”

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wilkins3Robert Wilkins was born in Hernando, Mississippi, 21 miles outside of Memphis, in 1896. After his father was run out of town on account of his bootlegging, his mother re-married guitarist Tim Oliver, who taught young Robert how to play. He’d become a versatile musician, who could play ragtime, blues and minstrel songs with great facility.

Working as a Pullman porter and a stockyard clerk, and Wilkins first recorded for Victor records in 1928, waxing “Rolling Stone pts. 1 and 2” on a borrowed guitar with a broken neck. 

It’s said he taught Memphis Minnie most of her licks, and that he was the first African-American to perform on the Memphis radio. He cut a few more records, and played the party circuit for a while, before becoming disillusioned by the violence of the wanderer’s lifestyle. In the early 1930’s, legend has it that when his wife took ill, Wilkins offered his life to the Lord in exchange for his beloved’s—when she got better, he became an ordained minister, abandoned secular music and began to play blues inflected gospel.

Rediscovered in the 1960’s—Reverend Wilkins performed at the ’64 Newport Folk Festival, having rewritten his most well known song, That’s No Way to Get Along, under a new title, and with “holier” lyrics. This revision—Prodigal Son, would be taken up by The Rolling Stones, and recorded for their album Beggars Banquet. While early LP pressings did not credit Wilkins, following legal action, it was corrected. He died in 1987, at 91 years old.

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