March 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit's Elder Wilson at 103: Still preaching, playing gospel harmonica

Elder Roma Wilson-Harmonica Master
Elder Roma Wilson-Harmonica Master: Elder Roma Wilson, at 103, is still preaching and playing the harmonica in his unique style on Detroit's east side.

Detroit has a rich musical history and a deep bench of current musicians in every genre. Not surprisingly, not all of them have received the notice they deserve. But when you come across a great talent recognized in Europe, as well as by the National Endowment of the Arts — someone who almost no one in Detroit has ever heard of — it makes you sit up and take notice. Especially when you realize this musical treasure is 103 years old — and still playing.

Gospel harmonica virtuoso Elder Roma Wilson lives quietly in a neighborhood of tidy ranch houses in northeast Detroit with his wife of three years, Mariah, who turned 91 in January. He lives a few blocks from Blessed Redeemer Church of the Living God, where his son, David, is pastor and where the elder still preaches occasionally and plays the harmonica for the glory of God.

Elder Wilson’s story is remarkable in so many ways.

He was alive when Robert Johnson (born May 8, 1911) strolled to the junction of Highway 61 and Route 49, the crossroad where, legend has it, Johnson traded the devil in his soul for the ability to play the guitar like an angel, the intersection he immortalized in his song “Crossroad Blues,” a classic covered by musicians from Jimi Hendrix to Phish.

But Johnson died young, at only 27, with two record albums totaling 29 songs as his legacy. Robert Johnson is a legend, those recordings precious. It seems unimaginable that there’s anyone alive who could have been his contemporary. But Elder Roma Wilson is not only still with us, but is also still preaching, singing and “choking” his harmonicas.

Mystery man

For many years Elder Wilson’s music was known to collectors in Germany through several recordings attributed to “Elder R. Wilson and Family.” This led writers like New Zealand journalist Alan Young to label him a “mystery man.” The mystery started on Detroit’s Hastings Street.

Wilson is one of the few musicians who can remember busking on Hastings Street when it was the cultural heart of Detroit’s African-American community in the Black Bottom neighborhood. The Wilsons lived on Illinois Street, three houses off Hastings near what is now Spain Elementary-Middle School in the Detroit Medical Center.

On one of those afternoons when Elder Wilson and three of his sons, Robert Lee, 9, Clyde, 11, and Sammy Lee, 13, were playing their harmonicas on Hastings, Joe Von Battle invited them into his store. Joe’s Record Shop had a little recording “studio” in the back and Von Battle was recording everyone who moved him. He recorded more than 75 sermons by the Rev. C.L. Franklin and made the first recording of Franklin’s daughter, the teenage Aretha, who sometimes joined the Wilsons when they played on a vacant lot across from her father’s church.

Elder Wilson’s son, Robert, now 71, remembers the primitive turntable with an arm that carved the grooves into the shellac record blanks. “It made a lot of little hairs and he’d have to brush the little hairs away.

“It tickled us to death because we’d never heard ourselves on a record,” he said. “And we never paid no more attention to it. And we never heard no more from it.”

It would be almost 40 years before someone brought it to Elder Wilson’s attention again.

Fame across the waters

The six songs they recorded that day would become classics among gospel music fans, especially overseas, for their quality and the rarity of four harmonicas being played together.

Gotham Records acquired the recordings and released two songs, “Lily of the Valley” and “Better Get Ready,” on an undated 78 rpm record, probably in the 1950s. Folk musician and historian Mike Seeger (brother of Pete) called these recordings “the single most important selection by multi-harp players in existence,” according to the 1994 program of the National Heritage Fellowships.

In 1983 all six of the songs Joe Von Battle recorded were released by St. George Records on the album “Harp Suckers!: Detroit Harmonica Blues 1948” and attributed to “Elder R. Wilson and Family,” with liner notes saying “Concerning Elder R. Wilson, nothing of a background nature is available …”

But Elder Wilson had no idea the recordings were released until he played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1991. After his performance, a German photographer and blues documenter named Axel Kustner approached him.

“You know I’ve got an album here with your songs on it,” Kustner said.

“I was took off my feet!” Elder Wilson said. “They knew about my music over across the water.”

Kustner told him his songs were on a blues compilation album. “I don’t play no blues,” Elder Wilson said. “I never did play no blues. Gospel is dedicated to the Lord; the blues isn’t.”

Today those original six tracks, plus 14 new tracks recorded in 1994 are available on the CD “This Train” released by Arhoolie Records in 1995. Of the 10 records that contain those 1952 tracks, this is the only one for which Elder Wilson actually gave his permission.

Over the years, some writers of liner notes and articles about Elder Wilson have gotten some details wrong, and subsequent writers have perpetuated these myths. Numerous references cite 1948 as the year of the Joe’s Record Shop recordings, due to the album title “Harp Suckers!: Detroit Harmonica Blues 1948.” But the Wilsons didn’t move to Detroit until 1951 and the recordings were made in 1952, according to the family. Even Von Battle’s daughter, Marsha Battle Philpot, confirms her father was not yet recording in his shop in 1948.

'Choking' the harmonica

Elder Wilson taught himself to play on the cast-off harmonicas of his older brothers. “My daddy used to ‘blow’ the harmonica,” he said, using “blow” to describe playing notes straight.But old Nick Cullin and an old peg-legged mannamed Ned Morse, they could ‘choke’ the harp,” he said. “So they told me how to do it.”

Choking is difficult to explain. It involves the harp player gaining precise control over the vibration of reeds inside the instrument while sucking through the notes. This technique, as well as his seemingly endless supply of breath that allowed him to sing and play almost simultaneously, became his calling card.

His gospel arrangement of the folk tune “This Train” uses his choking style to emulate the chugging and whistling of a locomotive.

“I thought I’d make a train for God on the harmonica from my experience of the railroad,” he said.

He added his own opening verse, “This train is a clean train, everyone rides in Jesus’ name.”

Some of his recorded songs he wrote himself, like “Ain’t It a Shame,” inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“I wrote that just before the march started, when Dr. (Martin) Luther King started marching and God give me the inspiration to write that song.”

White race hating the black race, black race hating the white,

They ought to throw that race hate down, walk in the gospel light.

Ain’t it a shame, ain’t it a shame,

Ain’t it a shame the way the people do.

Fighting is not the answer, not ammunition and guns

If we’d all live right for God, that’d put the devil on the run.

Ain’t it a shame, ain’t it a shame,

Ain’t it a shame the way the people do.

Ordained at 18

Elder Wilson was born on Dec. 22, 1910, in Hickory Flat, Miss., and grew up in nearby New Albany. Life was hard. He and his nine siblings carried drinking water from the creek where his mother washed their clothes. School was something they experienced only in the winter when they weren’t needed to cultivate and pick cotton.

Their mother left the family when he was 15 and the kids were on their own after that. Elder Wilson and his brothers worked in sawmills and on the railroad, where he remembers being told he was strong as a grown man. He farmed cotton for a white couple who helped him continue his education with home schooling.

“God called me to the ministry when I was 17 years of age; I was ordained when I was 18 and been preaching ever since,” Elder Wilson said from the pulpit at his 103rd birthday celebration.

He married first wife, Birdie, when he was 19. They had their first child in 1930 and had another baby about every other year until they had 11, six boys and five girls.

He always worked for a living, even when he had a church and became an elder supervising about 14 Church of the Living God congregations in rural Mississippi. He sharecropped in Arkansas until drought drove him to Michigan in 1950 to work in a Muskegon auto cylinder head foundry, pulling the red-hot steel parts from their molds.

The following year he moved his family to Detroit, where Birdie had a sister. Again he worked in a foundry and did construction jobs, all the while preaching revivals until he got his own storefront church on Gratiot Avenue.

In 1976, after 48 years of marriage, Birdie died and Elder Wilson moved back to Mississippi. He would outlive three more wives before moving back to Detroit. In 1979, while still in Mississippi, he rejoined his old friend Rev. Leon Pinson, a legally blind guitar player whose manager got the two paying gigs at music festivals all around the South and as far north as Chicago and Washington, D.C., where they played the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Their first gig paid them $300 each for a 45-minute set.

“That was the most money I ever had at one time,” he said.

A musical legacy

About six years ago, Elder Wilson’s children persuaded him to move back to Detroit, where most of his family lives.

On his living room wall he has a 1994 photo of first Lady Hillary Clinton presenting him with the National Endowment for the Arts award of a National Heritage Master Artist fellowship. Next to it is a congratulatory letter from President Bill Clinton.

Most of his offspring — and his offsprings’ offspring — have musical talent, especially his daughter, Esther Wilson Gray, 70, who played guitar and sang with the gospel group the Trumpelettes, and his son Robert “Rick” Wilson, who sang lead and played guitar with the Fantastic Violinaires. He promoted gospel groups around the country and even started his own record label. Robert was one of the three little boys who played behind their dad on those 1952 recordings.

What do you do when most of your generation is gone? If you’re a musician, you just keep playing.

Elder Wilson has stayed tucked into his cozy house this winter, occasionally watching the VCR tape of his 1994 National Heritage Fellowship performance and quietly singing along, obviously enjoying seeing and hearing his 83-year-old self.

The harsh weather has kept him inside, not because he’s ill, far from it, but because he fears a fall like the one that caused him a hip fracture two years ago. When things warm up, you can expect to see him at church, on the Sundays he feels up to it, preaching to Blessed Redeemer’s tiny congregation and punctuating his sermons with his singing and his full-throated harmonica renditions of “Up Above My Head.”

Elder Wilson’s CD “This Train” is available on http://arhoolie.com/ or http://amazon.com/or can be downloaded on iTunes.

Elder Wilson's harmonica, also known as harp, music was known to collectors in Germany through several recordings that were attributed to 'Elder R. Wilson and Family.' / Donna Terek / Detroit News
Elder Roma Wilson lives with his wife of three years, Mariah (who turned ... (Photos by Donna Terek / Detroit News)
Gospel harmonica virtuoso Elder Roma Wilson lives quietly in a ... (Donna Terek / Detroit News)
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