This CD – titled Memphis Blues – has the complete recordings from Robert Rev. Wilkins and Gus Cannon from 1927 to 1935. Rev Wilkins was born 1896 in Hernando, MS., and became an intelligent, conscientious artist. Gus Cannon was also a great musician from the Memphis area and played mostly banjo.
Wilkins was born in Hernando, Mississippi, 21 miles from Memphis. He performed in Memphis and north Mississippi during the 1920s and early 1930s, 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 that of the Memphis Jug Band, Wilkins reinforced his local popularity with a 1927 appearance on a Memphis radio station. From 1928 to 1936 he recorded for Victor and Brunswick Records, alone or with a single accompanist, like Sleepy John Estes, and unlike Gus Cannon of Cannon’s Jug Stompers. He sometimes performed as Tom Wilkins or as Tim Oliver.
In 1936, at the age of 40, he quit playing the blues and joined the church after witnessing a murder where he performed. In 1950, he was ordained. In 1964 Wilkins was “rediscovered” by blues revival enthusiasts Dick and Louisa Spottswood, making appearances at folk festivals and recording his gospel blues for a new audience.
Wilkins died on May 26, 1987, in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 91. His son, Reverend John Wilkins, continues his father’s gospel blues legacy.
His best-known songs are “That’s No Way to Get Along” and his reworked gospel version, “The Prodigal Son” (which was covered under that title by the Rolling Stones), “Rolling Stone”, and “Old Jim Canan’s”. The Stones were forced to credit “The Prodigal Son” to Wilkins after lawyers approached the band and asked for the credit to be changed. Early pressings of Beggars Banquet credited only Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as composers, not Wilkins. The original Beggars Banquet toilet cover credited Wilkins. When the record company rejected the cover, the revised plain white cover mistakenly credited Jagger-Richards as composer.
Born on a plantation in Red Banks, Mississippi, Cannon moved a hundred miles to Clarksdale, then the home of W. C. Handy, at the age of 12. His musical skills came without training; he taught himself to play a banjo that he made from a frying pan and a raccoon skin. He ran away from home at the age of fifteen and began his career entertaining at sawmills and levee and railroad camps in the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the century.
While in Clarksdale, Cannon was influenced by two local musicians, Jim Turner and Alec Lee. Turner’s fiddle playing in W. C. Handy’s band so impressed Cannon that he decided to learn to play the fiddle himself. Lee, a guitarist, taught Cannon his first folk blues, “Po’ Boy, Long Ways from Home”, and showed him how to use a knife blade as a slide, a technique that Cannon adapted to his banjo playing.
Cannon left Clarksdale around 1907 and soon settled near Memphis, Tennessee, where he played in a jug band led by Jim Guffin. He began playing in Memphis with Jim Jackson. He met the harmonica player Noah Lewis, who introduced him to a young guitar player, Ashley Thompson. Lewis and Thompson later were members of Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The three of them formed a band to play at parties and dances. In 1914 Cannon began touring in medicine shows. He supported his family through various jobs, including sharecropping, ditch digging, and yard work, but supplemented his income with music.
Cannon began recording, as Banjo Joe, for Paramount Records in 1927. At that session he was backed by Blind Blake. After the success of the Memphis Jug Band’s first records, he quickly assembled a jug band, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, featuring Lewis and Thompson (later replaced by Elijah Avery). The group was first recorded at the Memphis Auditorium for Victor Records in January 1928. Hosea Woods joined the Jug Stompers in the late 1920s, playing guitar, banjo and kazoo and providing some vocals. Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ recording of “Big Railroad Blues” is available on the compilation album The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead.
Although their last recordings were made in 1930, Cannon’s Jug Stompers were one of Beale Street’s most popular jug bands through the 1930s. A few songs Cannon recorded with the Jug Stompers are “Minglewood Blues”, “Pig Ankle Strut”, “Wolf River Blues”, “Viola Lee Blues”, “White House Station” and “Walk Right In” (a pop hit for The Rooftop Singers in the 1960s and for Dr. Hook in the 1970s). By the end of the 1930s, Cannon had effectively retired, although he occasionally performed as a solo musician.
Cannon made a few recordings for Folkways Records in 1956. During the blues revival of the 1960s, he made some appearances at colleges and coffee houses with Furry Lewis and Bukka White, but he had to pawn his banjo to pay his heating bill the winter before The Rooftop Singers had a hit with “Walk Right In”.
In the wake of becoming a hit composer, he recorded an album for Stax Records in 1963, with fellow Memphis musicians Will Shade (the former leader of the Memphis Jug Band) on jug and Milton Roby on washboard. Cannon performed traditional songs, including “Kill It”, “Salty Dog”, “Going Around”, “The Mountain”, “Ol’ Hen”. “Gonna Raise a Ruckus Tonight”, “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More”, “Boll-Weevil”, “Come On down to My House”, “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor”, “Get Up in the Morning Soon”, and “Crawdad Hole”, along with his own “Walk Right In”, with stories and introductions between songs.
Cannon appeared in the film Hallelujah! (1929), produced by King Vidor, in the late-night wedding scene.
- Memphis Blues: Robert Wilkins / Gus Cannon€12.50 incl. 20% Ust