At 103 Years Old, Elder Roma Wilson in Detroit Is Still Preaching and Playing the Harmonica for the Lord

'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. Donna Terek
‘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. Donna Terek

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.

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Source: Detroit News | DONNA TEREK

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