By Susan Sliwicki
When John Tefteller met Robert Wilkins in the late 1970s/early 1980s in Memphis, Tenn., it was decades after the bluesman had first recorded “That’s No Way to Get Along” on Brunswick 7125. Tefteller was in town to visit a fellow record collector when he had a chance to knock on opportunity’s door — well, the door of his friend’s neighbor, who just happened to be Robert Wilkins. Tefteller was introduced as a blues record collector, a hobby Wilkins tried to persuade him to change.
“He said, ‘Blues record collector, hmmm? Nobody ever told you about the Lord Jesus, did they?’ And I said, ‘I can appreciate that as much as I can appreciate blues records,” Tefteller recalled. “He said, ‘You just understand, young man, that you should put aside those blues records and listen to the Word.’”
Much as censors say that they know obscenity when they see it, Wilkins was well-qualified to point out sin in blues music. He often performed gigs at wild house parties, and songs such as the unreleased “Old Jim Canan’s” weren’t exactly Sunday School material.
“What ‘Old Jim Canan’s’ refers to is a black speakeasy/whorehouse in Memphis where they all hung out. It’s a fabulous song,” Tefteller said, adding that he has a test pressing of the song, which never was officially released. “I don’t know if they didn’t release it because they knew what the subject matter was and said, ‘No.’”
In 1935, Wilkins reportedly turned away from the blues on the grounds he felt the music really was an instrument of Satan. He joined the Church of God in Christ and became a minister who specialized in healing, according to Allmusic.com. He continued to play guitar and sing, but his songs changed, too. For instance, the once-sexy “My Baby” evolved into the devout “My Lord.”
Oddly enough, “That’s No Way to Get Along,” one of Wilkins’ better-known songs from his pre-preaching days, was reborn with a decidedly religious ring to it. The Rolling Stones renamed it “Prodigal Son” and put it out on the “Beggars Banquet” album — without giving Wilkins any credit. The story goes that Wilkins was properly credited on the original graffiti-laden, bathroom-themed cover, but that credit was lost when the cover art was changed to an invitation-themed design. The credit later was restored in Wilkins’ name, but only after legal action was taken. In the end, Wilkins managed to turn the other cheek into a very cheeky marketing move. During the blues revival of the 1960s, The Rev. Wilkins performed at Newport and recorded an album he titled “Original Rolling Stone,” and his new performance of “That’s No Way to Get Along” was retitled “Prodigal Son” to capitalize on the momentum from the Stones’ cover. To Tefteller, there’s no contest of which version is better.
“Mick and the boys don’t do a bad job; they certainly give it a respectable go,” he said. “But I’ve got to go with Rev. Wilkins, because that’s my thing.” And Wilkins’ gospel recordings are just as powerful as his blues records, Tefteller added.
Wilkins’ “Police Sergeant Blues” ranks as one of Tefteller’s favorites. Unfortunately, it probably won’t make the cut in a future edition of the annual blues calendar, because Tefteller doesn’t have any vintage ads for that recording.
Want to buy a copy for yourself? Prepare to write a big check. You can expect to pay $1,500 to $2,000 for a nice copy of “Rolling Stone,” Tefteller said. If you can even find a copy of “That’s No Way to Get Along” or any of Wilkins’ other titles, expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 — more like $8,000 to $10,000 if it’s a top-shelf copy of “Police Sergeant Blues,” he added.
“He’s really high up there in demand as far as his stuff. Whenever any of those records come up for sale, they go for silly money,” Tefteller said. “The only one you can actually buy at a halfway reasonable price is the one he did for Victor called ‘Rolling Stone,’ because that one sold enough copies that they have turned up on a regular basis.”