The Rolling Stones' "Prodigal Son": A Song Confusion

'Beggar's Banquet' LP fails to credit original songwriter Rev. Robert Wilkins

Mick Jagger Rolling Stones Keith Richards Beggars Banquet
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Mick Jagger and Keith Richards recording 'Beggar's Banquet' circa 1968.
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BURKE, VIRGINIA—"Prodigal Son," one of the tracks on the Stones' Beggar's Banquet LP, is not an original by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, although the album credits, as revised from the original banned LP cover to the one inspired by the record company, list it as such. It is a song written and recorded by Reverend Robert Wilkins, a 72-year-old former blues singer turned minister. He first recorded it in February of 1964 for Piedmont Records (Reverend Robert Wilkins—Memphis Gospel Singer Piedmont 13162), a now defunct specialist label that featured Mississippi John Hurt, as well as reissues of classic blues and ragtime numbers.

The original cover for Beggar's Banquet had clearly credited Wilkins with the tune, and since the confusion was pointed out to London Records and the Stones business office, publishing, royalties and other attendant financial details have been happily and properly straightened out.

It's more than just a matter of credit where credit is due; anyone who copyrights a song is paid composer royalties for any recordings of that song. The standard music publishing contract provides that the author gets 50 percent of the royalties, the publisher gets the other 50 percent. Nowdays, this generally means that for each song recorded on an LP, the composer gets 1 ¢ per copy sold.

The song rights are owned by Wynwood Music, Box 141, Burke Va. 22015, headed by Peter Kuykendall, a former bluegrass singer and arranger (he worked with the Country Gentlemen), and sound engineer; he mastered Wilkins' Piedmont LP. When contacted, Kuykendall hadn't heard of the Stones recording.

"We usually try to keep close tabs on this sort of thing, but it's not always possible," he explained. "But I'll certainly get my papers in order and put in a claim – and hope for the best. The Stones may accept it and pay on it right off," he continued, "which was the case with Cream's version of Skip James's 'I'm So Glad' on their first LP. I don't know if it was Clapton or who, but when they found out about the claim they said, 'Let's not fight it, he needs the bread.'"

Dick Spottswood, who recorded the Reverend's first and only LP, is an old-time record collector, bluegrass enthusiast, and former head of several specialized blues and folk labels. He filled in Reverend Wilkins' background. "He was born Robert Timothy Wilkins, January 16, 1896, in Hernando, Mississippi, Negro on his father's side, white and Cherokee Indian on his mother's. When he was very young, Wilkins' father was forced to leave the state to avoid prosecution on bootlegging charges. Wilkins' mother remarried, to a very fine guitar player, who taught Robert. By age 15, Robert was playing for dances, parties, etc., and he became a very fine guitarist and singer. In 1915, he left for Memphis, Tennessee, and other than a short spell of military service in World War I, he's lived there ever since. He never did make his living completely by singing, but music has always been a part of his life."

In September of 1928 Wilkins made his first blues recordings, for Victor label. The song was "Rolling Stone Blues, Parts I & II" (another twist!) "Robert used a borrowed guitar with a broken neck – he didn't want it released, but Victor went ahead. For later sessions he got a better guitar, the sound was much improved. A year later, 1929, Wilkins recorded "That's No Way To Get Along," a blues ancestor of "Prodigal Son," using the same melody and guitar lines, only with blues lyrics (available today on a reissue LP Mississippi Blues 1927-1940, Origin Jazz Library OJL-5). Wilkins worked as a pullman porter and stockyard clerk, singing and recording on the side.

"In 1936 he was 'converted' to Christian ideals, which meant that he stopped singing secular music. In 1950 he undertook his first ministry, and he is now an herb medicine specialist and minister of the Church of God In Christ, in Memphis."

Spottswood, a connoisseur of old blues, "rediscovered" Wilkins in a manner that seems absurdly simple when you hear of the decade-long hunts for other old blues men. He heard a rumor that Wilkins was alive in Memphis, went to a library, got a Memphis directory, and found two Robert Wilkinses listed. So he sat down, wrote identical letters to both addresses, and the right man answered. The recording sessions and Newport appearances followed.

"Wilkins' guitar style hadn't changed," Spottswood said. "But the old blues songs had become guitar instrumental pieces – he would play anything – it was only sinful to sing the words. Or he would rework the old songs, as the case with 'That's No Way To Get Along' becoming the biblical tale of 'Prodigal Son.'

"Today Wilkins is making a comfortable living as a minister, and he's the patriarch of a large family, including his wife, children, in-laws and grandchildren. He sings and plays gospel songs as a regular part of his weekly service – but he's still proud of the old blues."

Later, Kuykendall phoned the Reverend and told him of the Stones recording, without mentioning the copyright difficulties. "He seemed quite happy that people will be hearing his song," Kuykendall said. "It couldn't bother him that a rock group has done it."

This story is from the March 1, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 28: March 1, 1969
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