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Coronavirus Victims: Gospel Blues Performer John Wilkins

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes remembering one of the more than 400,000 people in the U.S. killed by COVID-19, the Reverend John Wilkins of Memphis. NPR's Christopher Intagliata has this remembrance.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA, BYLINE: The Reverend John Wilkins spent more than three decades preaching at Hunters Chapel, just south of Memphis. He worked for the city in the parks department, and he had a lot of extracurriculars.

TANGELA LONGSTREET: He trained dogs. He had horses. He would win horse competitions. And my father also - I think this was before we were born - my father was a boxer. He was a championship boxer.

JOYCE JONES: He was in a motorcycle club, the King Riders, where they gave him the title the biker's preacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAWANA CUNNINGHAM: He just - he loved life, and he lived it to the fullest.

INTAGLIATA: Those are his daughters, Tawana Cunningham, Joyce Jones and Tangela Longstreet. And if all that didn't keep him busy enough, there was the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF REVEREND JOHN WILKINS SONG, "DOWN HOME CHURCH")

INTAGLIATA: Wilkins played professionally in the studio and on the road and in church, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HOME CHURCH")

JOHN WILKINS: (Singing) Blind man (ph), go, go with me to that down, down-home church.

INTAGLIATA: In many ways, John Wilkins took after his father, the Reverend Robert Wilkins, who also played the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRODIGAL SON")

ROBERT WILKINS: (Singing) The prodigal son left home by himself, home by himself. The prodigal son left home by himself.

INTAGLIATA: But around midlife, the senior Wilkins stopped playing clubs and brought his music into the church.

AMOS HARVEY: He kept playing the same musical style but just changed the lyrics to be gospel- and church-oriented.

INTAGLIATA: Amos Harvey was the junior Wilkins' tour manager, bandmate and friend. He says, along with music and the church, family was a cornerstone for the Wilkins, too.

HARVEY: Reverend Wilkins Sr., you know, played with his family. He had a family band and always wanted to include them.

INTAGLIATA: Tawana Cunningham says her dad kept that tradition alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CUINNINGHAM: I just remember growing up, we would all sing. It didn't matter what family function. It would be a birthday. It could be Thanksgiving. It could be Christmas. It could be the Fourth of July.

INTAGLIATA: Her dad invited his daughters into the band, too. They toured together and, in 2019, recorded an album. Then in April of last year, the reverend caught COVID-19. He spent weeks on a ventilator. And though he wasn't conscious, the doctors said he could probably still hear music. So Tangela Longstreet says they got him a stereo and their album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LONGSTREET: And we took the CD up there. They played the CD every day. And then we would get on the phone every single day. And we talked to Daddy, and we said, Daddy, we're here. We know what's going on. You're going to be OK. Be a fighter, Daddy. Just fight, fight, fight.

INTAGLIATA: Wilkins spent nearly two months in the hospital. After he left, he needed regular dialysis. He couldn't taste food, lost his appetite and grew thin and weak. Finally, on October 6, Wilkins died.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILKINS SONG, "WALK WITH ME")

LONGSTREET: I think the moment that I'll remember - when my daddy - when we would perform, there were two songs that my daddy and I would perform together, and one of them was "Walk With Me." And my dad and I - we would sing that together. And I would just be standing right beside him and looking in his eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK WITH ME")

J WILKINS: (Singing) Walk with me, Lord.

JOHN WILKINS AND TANGELA LONGSTREET: (Singing) Walk with me.

J WILKINS: (Singing) Walk with me, Lord.

WILKINS AND LONGSTREET: (Singing) Walk with me.

CUINNINGHAM: I would not have been to half the places in this world if it was not for my dad, the Reverend John Wilkins (laughter). He's our hero. He's our king.

JONES: Us three girls are going to do our best to keep singing, going to always try to keep his music alive, keep it going 'cause that's what he would want.

INTAGLIATA: That's Joyce Jones, Tawana Cunningham and Tangela Longstreet remembering their dad, the Reverend John Wilkins. He was 76.

Christopher Intagliata, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK WITH ME")

WILKINS AND LONGSTREET: (Singing) Walk with me.

J WILKINS: (Singing) Walk with my mother.

WILKINS AND LONGSTREET: (Singing) Walk with me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.