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Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Plugging In

Gayle F. Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout!” The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is perhaps the most authoritative book available on the life and music of “The Original Soul Sister.”
Around 1947, Tharpe migrated from acoustic to electric guitar, and many fans are of the opinion that the throaty tones from her hard-driven amplifier suited her rough-hewn voice more than the thin plunk of the acoustics she had been playing. Photos indicate that Tharpe’s early electric-guitar experiments were with some sort of bar pickup placed near the bridge of her L-5. Other photos show her playing the first Les Paul model—a 1952 goldtop with P-90s, a one-piece trapeze tailpiece, and strings fitted under (instead of over) the steel stop-bar. She has also been pictured with a Gretsch Tennessean and a Gibson ES-330 with metal-covered, dogear- style P-90s. The cover of the compilation Precious Memories shows her wielding a Gibson Barney Kessel, and you can find video of her playing it unplugged on an early television appearance. The Kessel was first introduced in 1961, as was the SG/Les Paul that you’ll see her playing in her most famous performances—an electrifying version of “Up Above My Head” played on TV Gospel Time, as well as a rendition of “Down by the Riverside” from the same era.

By the ’60s, Tharpe’s gospel career was waning, falling short of the iconic heights of Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. As great a performer as she was, Tharpe found her success among the faithful was thwarted by the fact that she incorporated the sounds and rhythms of “worldly” blues and jazz, and that did not go down well with the “holy rollers.” Over the course of her life and career, Tharpe herself was torn between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane. Like other highprofile artists—such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Al Green, and Prince—she struggled to resolve simultaneous attractions to God and “the Devil’s music.” And the difficulty of that dilemma was likely compounded by the potential for exponentially greater financial success in the latter niche.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was rising interest in American roots music in Britain. Chris Barber, one of the leaders of the traditional jazz movement in England, invited Tharpe to open for his band on a tour of the country. Barber could sell out shows on the strength of his own name, which made promoters reluctant to contribute more money toward bringing over Tharpe. But Barber wanted her on the tour so badly that he offered to pay her out of his own cut. The tour was highly successful, which led to even more shared bills between the two artists. As with many African-American performers of the time, Tharpe found the reception of crowds at shows and the treatment she received at British hotels and restaurants to be a breath of fresh air after the racism she had endured during years of touring America.

Tharpe's flamedtop National Triolian is now part of the collection at
The Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. Photo by Bryan McDade

The rise of rock ’n’ roll offered Sister Rosetta Tharpe a whole new fan base. In 1957, she was quoted by London’s Daily Mirror as saying, “All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now . . . Ninety percent of rock-and-roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.”

In 1964, Tharpe toured the British Isles as part of the American Folk, Blues, and Gospel Caravan, which also featured artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, and “Blind” Gary Davis. Though her musical roots were similar, Tharpe was uncomfortable at first. She’d reached a certain level of glamour and sophistication and had left behind the rustic appearance and manners of the other performers. Her presentation was as polished as the hardware on her SG, which she often used like a mirror to flash light on the audience.

An abridged version of the Caravan show called The Blues and Gospel Train was filmed for British television. The producers reconfigured a Manchester railroad station as “Chorltonville,” their vision of a Deep South rural train stop. The success of the tour had mellowed Tharpe’s indignation, and she took everything—the fake hay bales, the tethered goats, and even the light rain that fell—in stride, opening very appropriately with “Didn’t It Rain.” She then greeted fans seated on the other side of the tracks with, “Oh I love you so, my English friends, forever and ever, until I leave this world. But I feel troubled. The train is gone, but I am gonna catch the next one,” before launching into “Trouble in Mind.” After the first verse, she stopped playing guitar long enough to get the audience to clap on all four beats instead of on the one and three. She also entreated Otis Spann, “Ah, play it, baby,” and immediately joined him for a soulful solo that she modestly deemed “Pretty good for a woman.”

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