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sister act

The blues has many roots, one of which is gospel music that has been sung in white and black churches around the nation for hundreds of years. Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, recalled those church-going days of her youth: “Everybody in there sang, and they clapped and stomped their feet, and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a rhythm we held onto from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive. It used to bring tears to my eyes.” Blues was a natural outgrowth of this tradition of such emotional outbursts.

In my opinion, some of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits were his gospel songs, such as “Crying in the Chapel,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.” The salient characteristics of such music are the feelings they exude. That’s why the early white pioneers of rock-and-roll music, like Elvis and Carl Perkins, would visit black churches to hear their choirs perform. Southern black churches at that time (1950s) had roped-off areas in the back of the pews for white visitors to observe and listen. Elvis’ trips to black churches taught him to express such feelings in his music; he channeled one black gospel and blues singer, in particular. Her name was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73).   

Tharpe attained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll. She was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, later being referred to as “the Godmother of rock and roll.” She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements while incorporating a pulsating swing.

This flamboyant American singer/showman’s influence crossed the Atlantic as well. “Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; in particular a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1964 with a stop in Manchester on 7 May is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards,” explains Wikipedia

Sister Rosetta was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas and was taken by her mother to Chicago when she was six years old. At 19, she married Thomas Tharpe. The marriage did not last, but the last name she had acquired did. Moving to New York in 1938, she joined up with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra and landed a seven-year recording contract with Decca Records. She later found out that the contract called for her to sing secular, not gospel, songs. Following her first hit in 1938 called “Rock Me,” her career took off like a rocket, with performances at the famous Cotton Club and at Carnegie Hall. Lyrics to her first hit go like this:

“Now won’t you hear me singin’
Hear the words that I’m saying
Wash my soul with water from on high
Why the world loves love is around me
Even force to buy me
But oh, if you leave me
I will die
You hold me in the bosom
Till the storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of our love
Only feed me till I want no more.”

Tharpe’s 1944 release “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004, which noted that it captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers. When asked about her influence on rock performers Tharpe would respond: “Oh, these kids and rock and roll, this is just sped-up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”

She met Marie Knight, her reportedly lesbian lover, in 1946 and the two formed a traveling duo act. The two drifted apart, however, after a fire claimed Knight’s mother and children. When the blues began to surge in the 1960s, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan along with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann.

An ode to Sister Tharpe’s vast popularity came in 1951, when 25,000 people paid to attend her wedding to her new manager, Russell Morrison, whom she had met only three weeks before. The special ceremony was followed by a vocal performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke in Philadelphia in 1973 at the young age of 57. Her leg had been amputated as the result of diabetes-related complications. Marie Knight did Rosetta’s makeup and hair for the burial. Knight passed away in Harlem in 2009; she was 84.

According to her biography on AllMusic.com, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was “widely acclaimed among the greatest Sanctified gospel singers of her generation; a flamboyant performer whose music often flirted with the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market – by playing nightclubs and theaters, she not only pushed spiritual music into the mainstream, but in the process also helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. “It’s long overdue,” said singer Brittany Howard, who made the introduction.

Amen to that.