ROBERT WILKINS BIOGRAPHY
Robert Wilkins (January 16, 1896 – May 26, 1987) was an American country blues guitarist and vocalist, of African American and Cherokee descent. His distinction was his versatility; he could play ragtime, blues, minstrel songs, and gospel with equal facility.
Wilkins 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 Tom 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) and also “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”.
Robert Wilkins gets religion
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.
Wikins died on May 26, 1987 in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 91