Robert Wilkins, the greatest blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist most music fans never heard of, was born on January 16, 1896 (exactly 110 years ago as I write this) in Herndon, Mississippi, in the hill country a bit south of Memphis, near the top of the Mississippi Delta region that was such a musically fertile area in the early 20th century. But while Wilkins might be an obscure figure to all but rabid Delta blues fans, among those fans are the Rolling Stones, and from that comes Wilkins's one bit of mainstream fame: the Stones' "Prodigal Son" (on Beggars Banquet) is a complete ripoff of Wilkins's "That Ain't No Way to Get Along."
A mix of black and Cherokee, Wilkins was the son of a bootlegger. After the state of Mississippi expelled the senior Wilkins, Robert's mother remarried; his stepfather was Tim Oliver, a good guitarist. Wilkins was exposed to some fine local musical talents: Jim Jackson was a family friend, and itinerant musicians played at Wilkins's sister's house parties.
Wilkins was also tutored by Aaron "Buddy" Taylor. Wilkins's musical horizons were expanded further when he moved to Memphis in 1915, though military service during World War I interrupted. By that time he was already a professional musician, sometimes working as Tim Wilkins or even Tim Oliver (in reference to his stepfather).
In later years, Wilkins rated himself rather higher in popularity during the 1920s and '30s than his record sales reflect (he also claimed to have tutored Memphis Minnie in guitar), though he did have the then-unusual distinction for a black musician of having played on the radio in 1927. He may have retroactively exaggerated his renown as far as the general public was concerned, but it's easy to imagine his fellow musicians granting his talents considerable respect. Wilkins is exactly the sort of performer who would impress cognoscenti more than the masses. He had no hits and no trademark sound, instead crafting highly individual songs across a wide array of styles and structures. He was secure enough in his virtuosity to abjure flamboyant effects, instead making his impact through superb complementary coordination of voice and instrument. His vibrato (fast and tight) and excellent vocal control contribute to a singing style that's distinctive despite being utterly devoid of eccentricities and tics or unusual timbre. His use of a thumb and finger pick may limit the expressiveness of his guitar sound compared to players who used only their fingers, but but it gave his tone a cutting brightness that must have helped pierce the din of Delta parties and certainly helps overcome the dimness of the era's recording sonics.
Of course, I make those statements based on having experienced Wilkins only on record -- specifically on Yazoo's compilation The Original Rolling Stone, which has most of his pre-retirement recordings. He recorded first in September 1928 for Victor. (In what follows, I go by song titles as listed in Dixon, Godrich, & Rye's monumental reference Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943, Fourth Edition (Oxford University Press, 1997) rather than by Yazoo's track listing.) First came two-sided readings of "I Told My Rider" (unissued by Victor and, since it hasn't been put out by anybody as far as I can see, presumably lost) and "Rolling Stone" (yup!). Oddly, Yazoo positions part 1 of the latter at track 2 but doesn't give us part 2 until track 11. "Rolling Stone" may not have a normal blues structure (18 bars, ABAB), but in its one-chord presentation (enlivened by solo bass notes that slightly suggest other chords without sounding them) and mournful vocal tone give it a classically stark early country blues sound (much more spare than Wilkins's norm). The next day, two more songs were immortalized. "Jail House Blues" is an oddly ambivalent goodbye to a woman that makes more of an impression for his abandonment of the pick and the juxtaposition of two rhythmic patterns. The 10-1/2 bar "I Do Blues," also in finger-picking style, is thus able to offer timbral variety uncharacteristic of his playing with a pick -- though the characteristic coordination of his vocal and guitar work is at its peak here.
He returned to recording in September 1929, this time for Brunswick. First up was "That Ain't No Way to Get Along." It's easy to hear why the Stones admired it enough to copy it. The quite poetic lyrics are a classic lament of mistreatment, while the guitar accompaniment has a crying figure through the first part of each verse and a compelling rising section at the end of each verse. "Alabama Blues" has an interesting two-level structure; the music is a double-time 12-bar blues under a 6-bar lyric format. "Long Train Blues" has a 15-bar structure and one of Wilkins's most repetitive melodies. The guitar part is also repetitive, but every time the piquant descending mid-range figure comes back, it provides a delightful shiver. "Falling Down Blues" is an odd mixture of pleading and threats that peaks in the disturbing verse "I'll certainly treat you just like you was white / If that don't satisfy you, girl I'll take your life." Throughout this 8-bar blues, Wilkins's guitar accompaniment is relentlessly driving, lending greater urgency to the meaning.
A further Brunswick session came in February 1930. "Nashville Stonewall Blues" is an excellent jailhouse lament, musically similar to "Jail House Blues" but with vastly more heart-tugging lyrics depicting utter helplessness. "Police Sergeant Blues" is an old-fashioned rag given great character by some asymmetrical aspects and Wilkins's adept picking and pointed tone. "Get Away Blues" is characterized by lots of solo guitar and a thumb-picked bass and thrumming rhythm evocative of a locomotive. "I'll Go with Her Blues," featuring a striking instrumental introduction, is a remarkable lament on the death of a loved one (it's not surprising that Yazoo opens its compilation with this track, though that might also be because it's in very clear, well-balanced sound). The harmonic structure is quite unusual thanks to the early arrival at the dominant (V) chord.
Wilkins's final recording session before his retirement from the music profession came in October 1935 for Vocalion (a Brunswick subsidiary) as Tim Wilkins. A Japanese label, P-Vine, put out a disc in 2003 that includes the three pieces ("Dirty Deal Blues," "Black Rat Blues," and "New Stock Yard Blues") from the first day of this session that the Yazoo CD lacks, but I haven't heard it. For the first time on record, Wilkins has accompanists: Son Joe AKA Ernest Lawlars on guitar and Kid Spoons on spoons (a clacking, rhythmically enlivening use of the kitchen utensils). "Old Jim Canan's" (unissued at the time) is a jaunty rag tribute to a Memphis barrelhouse that closed in 1916. Its 8-bar chorus plus 8-bar verse structure offers dramatic contrast, while Wilkins's guitar solos typically are unflashy yet perfect, highlighted by some expressive note-bending. The spoons are less prominent on "Losin' Out Blues," a rag on which Wilkins informs an ex-girlfriend that she'll be missing out on a good thing.
At some point within a year or two after this session, the teetotaling Wilkins was playing a house party in his hometown when a violent brawl broke out. Shaken by this event, he became a minister and abandoned secular music -- though he continued playing and singing in church with appropriate material. In a related move, he took up herbal medicine. And so it was until he was "rediscovered" in 1964, during the folk revival, and convinced to record Memphis Gospel Singer and go on tour (with some Newport Folk Festival and Memphis Country Blues Festival performances recorded and issued). Reverend Wilkins was uncomfortable with secular material, and revamped the lyrics of his blues material accordingly. Then in December 1968 came the release of Beggars Banquet. When called on the authorship of "Prodigal Son," the Stones insisted that it was an oversight that came about when the artwork of the album had to be changed at the last minute, and subsequent editions of the LP correctly credited Wilkins. But typically, even after Wilkins's authorship of "Prodigal Son" had been acknowledged, he got no royalties. That was no fault of the Stones; somebody at Vocalion owned the song's rights. But as frustrating as the situation was to Wilkins, it did raise his profile and he was able to capitalize on it a bit. He even began calling "That Ain't No Way to Get Along" "Prodigal Son" instead; in addition to taking advantage of the notoriety it had gained, perhaps the Biblically derived new title appealed to his religiosity.
Wilkins was recorded one more time, released as Remember Me by Adelphi Records. He died aged 91 in 1987, his teetotaling lifestyle and knowledge of herbal medicine perhaps having helped him outlive his peers.