Reverend Robert Wilkins

Prodigal Son

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This 2014 compilation from Bear Family focuses on Robert Wilkin's 1964 LP Memphis Gospel Singer, which is the record that most likely introduced the Rolling Stones to "That's No Way to Get Along," a blues narrative the group recorded as "Prodigal Son" for their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. All of that record is here, as are four cuts from the Biograph record When I Lay My Burden Down -- the album also contained cuts from Furry Lewis and Mississippi Fred McDowell -- and the entire disc showcases a blues singer caught between extremes. Wilkins was a Delta bluesman who often sang spirituals, a common situation that nevertheless provided considerable tension, and here he's also caught between the past and the present, playing the old tunes for a modern world. Neither of these sessions are especially contemporary -- it's always just him and a guitar -- but the conventions of the '60s allow him to stretch out on his stories, taking the title track to nearly ten minutes and usually bringing his songs in somewhere between four or five minutes, a length that wouldn't comfortably fit on 78s. His slightly advanced age also gives these recordings a bit of a weary resonance; he's not a commanding a storyteller but rather an insinuating one, somebody that slowly pulls a listener into his web. "The Prodigal Son" -- which, in this incarnation, is quite clearly the inspiration for the Stones, right down to the alternate tuning -- is the centerpiece but it's all absorbing; Wilkins might not be a major stylist but he's a distinctive one, an emblem of a different time, when stories and spirituals were passed down generation to generation and there was never a consideration that this could possibly be the end of the line, which it very well may have been.

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