In Memoriam, Reverend John Wilkins: A Life Well Lived


After a prolonged struggle with COVID-19 and its aftereffects, the Reverend John Wilkins, renowned singer, songwriter and player of gospel blues, passed away on Tuesday, October 6th. He was 76. This comes as a double blow to those who saw hope in Wilkins’ seemingly successful struggle with the coronavirus, as detailed in Chris McCoy’s recent profile of survivors.

Born and raised in Memphis, Wilkins also had deep ties to Mississippi, having served as pastor at Hunter’s Chapel in Como since 1985. By then he had already contributed a lifetime of blues guitar playing, including a stellar performance on O.V. Wright’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry.” But more than a dozen years ago, he was moved to return to music, embracing a blend of gospel and blues that won him many fans internationally. (Read The Memphis Flyer’s 2019 overview of Wilkins’ life here). Wilkins came to embrace playing music both sacred and profane, saying, “People got to realize I listen to blues. That ain’t gonna send me to hell — the way I live is what’s gonna send me to hell.”
Rev. John Wilkins and Stewart Copeland - ALEX GREENE
  • Alex Greene
  • Rev. John Wilkins and Stewart Copeland
Wilkins’ services in Como, and an interview with drummer and composer Stewart Copeland, were recently featured in the BBC series, Stewart Copeland’s Adventures in Music.

Traveling with him through most of his tours was friend, manager and sometime bass player Amos Harvey, who recalled Tuesday's events. “I was actually on my way to visit him yesterday morning, and his daughter Tangela called me and said ‘Dad's taken a turn for the worse.’ A little while later he passed away. So I was up there for a long time at the hospital and then just drove around Memphis kinda aimlessly, processing it a little bit. It was just a long, hard day.”

Because of COVID-19, Harvey noted, processing Wilkins' death is all the more difficult. “I don't want to be bitter while remembering Rev. Wilkins,” said Harvey, “but he absolutely would still be here today had it not been for the lack of leadership in this country. The President knew about it in February! He should have done the mask mandate and the shutdown a month and half early, and it would have lessened the severity of the virus. And hundreds of thousands of people would not be ill or dead. It’s directly related. That’s the truth.”

Harvey went on to describe Wilkins’ long struggle of dealing with COVID’s fallout. “He’d been doing dialysis three times a week ever since he got out of the hospital four months ago. The aftereffects of ‘beating Covid’ finally wore him out. He fought like hell for six months and these aftereffects took him down.

Reverend John Wilkins
  • Reverend John Wilkins
“He had so much more life to him. He was a strapping 76-year-old before this happened. Able to travel all over the world. Of course there were festivals booked for this year that were canceled and rescheduled for next year, but more bookings came throughout these past six months for European shows. He loved traveling overseas, and he loved taking his daughters overseas. He loved playing music, but he loved doing it with his family even more.”

Daughters,Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones and Tawana Cunningham, his sole surviving family members, recorded with Wilkins as well, figuring prominently on his latest album, Trouble, released last month by Goner Records (and recently profiled in The Memphis Flyer).

“He wanted to feature them,” Harvey said. “And I think we did a good job, and that feels good, that we got to put this record out to the world, with Goner and his hometown, and they love and respect him so much. I’d send him and his daughters reviews as they were coming out, and he would be real happy. I would play him clips from old shows and that would really make him light up and hope for the better.”

There are no plans at present for memorial services, but Harvey noted that there will be on-air and online remembrances. “The Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale had already planned to have a tribute to him, even before he passed away, because he usually closed out the festival on Sundays. Now, since it's live-streamed, I want to compile a lot of different videos of him playing gigs and preaching. So that will be an online tribute, broadcast through the Deep Blues Festival on October 18th. And DJ Swamp Boogie, who's always been a big supporter, is gonna do a tribute on his show, Thursday, October 15th, on WWOZ.”

In the meantime, Wilkins’ family, congregation, and many fans are struggling to adjust. As Harvey says, “Not only did he touch the crowds he played for, but for us playing with him, it made your fricking day. That's why you play music, is to feel like you feel when you’re playing with him. And we were lucky to have Wallace [Lester] and Kevin [Cubbins], who’ve been with us almost the entire time. None of us were making a living off it, but that didn't matter. And everybody else that played with him felt it was an honor to play with him. He would immediately welcome new players into the band.”

Reflecting for a moment, Harvey said, “It’s hard to know we're not gonna go onstage and make those memories and feelings happen again, you know?”

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