Happy 104th birthday to Detroit's great gospel shouter Elder Roma Wilson

Detroit’s music history is so rich, varied and reaches back so many decades that a lot of its most important musicians live among us, often obscure and unknown—even within their own communities. Today we’d like to bring your attention to the fabulous Elder Roma Wilson, who turns 104 years-old today, Dec. 22!

Born in rural Mississippi in 1910, Wilson moved to Detroit in the 1940s. His first 78, “Lily Of The Valley”/ ”Better Get Ready,” was recorded in 1948 and then issued by the New York-based label Gotham in 1952. You’ve never heard anything quite like the guy, as it’s harmonica-based gospel—that’s right, his major, historical recordings from sixty-six years ago are just vocals, and harmonica.

The remarkable thing is that Wilson was unaware that his first 78 had been released until decades later. Six songs of his playing, accompanied by three of his children, were allegedly recorded without his knowledge by the legendary Joe Von Battle. It would be forty years until Wilson even heard these recordings, or knew of their existence. He was later recorded with his consent for a release on the Arhoolie label, thankfully.

I included a song by him on my 2009 gospel collection Fire in my Bones for Tompkins Square. I will soon meet up with and interview him for the MT. For today, we just want to wish a great birthday to Detroit's own Elder Wilson!

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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