Her message was heavenly, but her guitar conjured up the devil’s music. Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang gospel, but when she plugged in, pure rock and roll came pouring out. She laid the groundwork and lit the pathway for generations of rockers. Chuck Berry incorporated some of her licks. Elvis loved her playing. Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard cited her influence on their careers, as did Aretha Franklin. Muddy Waters was said to have been intimidated by her boisterous style.
Now, 44 years after her death, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has just announced that she will be inducted into the hall in the class of 2018. Tharpe will also be awarded the Hall’s Award For Early Influence, an honor she shares with past inductees including The 5 Royales, Willie Dixon, Wanda Jackson, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson and Bill Monroe.
But musician’s lives weren’t the only things she touched. Sister Rosetta her playing took gospel to audiences who had never been exposed to or interested in black gospel until they saw and heard what she did with it.
Her guitar prowess is on display on a ’60s video clip from TV Gospel Time with Sister fronting the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church choir on “Up Above My Head.” The vocal bombastics would be enough to make it memorable, but when she goes to work with her white Gibson Les Paul SG, the heavens open up and you can almost see shocked angel faces peering down in wonder at what’s going on down below.
After her Sunday go-to- meetin’ vocal, Sister starts spewing out a torrent of rockabilly licks on her Les Paul. She starts out chicken pickin’ on the first solo, then wrings all the juice out of the neck with some slippery barefingered slide. It gets so good to her that she can’t let go to go back to the vocal bombardment. “Lets do that again,” she shouts gleefully, tossing in a Pete Townsend-worthy windmill sweep before getting in some chooglin’ licks you know made Chuck Berry swoon with envy and file away for future use.
Her ’63 performance of “Down By the Riverside,” sharing a bill with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama is fascinating. Blind Boys frontman Clarence Fountain is on fire here, testifyin’ with a white hot fervor that no mere mortal would dare to try to follow. But Tharpe is up to the challenge, cuttin’ loose like a blue suede-shod rocker, prancing around in a distinctly unchurchified manner, cranking out rock licks any guitar gawd would be proud to claim.
But her output wasn’t just limited to gospel. Early in her career, Tharpe took on secular music , performing with Count Basie and Benny Goodman on multiple occasions, playing with Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. She was Lucky Millinder’s vocalist for his big band in the late ’30s, recording double entendre ditties including “Four or Five Times” and “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.” But Tharpe allegedly was not comfortable with that situation, and it did harm her career because she had already established herself as a gospel artist, and crossing over to play the devil’s music was considered blasphemy. But while some church groups shunned her because of her choices, some of the material she cut during those years, including Tommy Dorsey’s “Rock Me” and later “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” got her in the top ten on the race records chart, a precursor to the musical rating lists that would become labeled as R&B.
Teaming up with Marie Knight, Tharpe enjoyed considerable success up until the early 60s, when more churchy artists like Mahalia Jackson took the spotlight away. Tharpe died at the age of 58 in 1973, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia.
But her music reached out from the grave to help her, and in 1998 the US Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp in her honor. In ’07, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2008, Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell proclaimed January 11 as “Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day,” and a benefit concert by writer and fan Bob Merz in her honor in Glenside, Pennsylvania, raised money for a marker for her grave.
There’s still plenty of material left to keep her musical memory alive. She left 17 albums and numerous videos of her performances. And as this year staggers mercifully to a close, her influence is still being felt. The Holmes Brothers owe Sister a debt for their success with crossover performances over the years, blending secular and gospel into a seamless mix. Surviving member Sherman Holmes’ latest release on MC Records,The Richmond Sessions, would have made Sister Tharpe beam with pleasure with its incorporation of bluegrass and rock licks, mixing secular and celestial. Guitarist Jared Pool’s Tele solos on the gospel/rock treatment of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s tune “Don’t Do It,” which The Band adapted folkily, could have come straight from Sister’s Les Paul. She would have also approved of the juxtaposition of that tune alongside Muscle Shoals Swampers Chips Moman/Dan Penn’s soul classic “Dark End Of The Street,” or the Holmseian gospel/bluegrass/soul treatment of Ben Harper’s “Homeless Child.”
MC records also hosted a brilliant tribute to Tharpe with 03’s Shout Sister Shout, featuring the Holmes Brothers with Joan Osborne along with a dazzling array of folkers and rockers including Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Maria Muldaur. Osborne and the Holmes turn in a riveting performance on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Osborne’s muscular, churchy lead pulling the train with Wendell’s guitar lines running smoothly on Tharpe’s tracks. Muldaur and Nelson absolutely tear up “Up Above My Head.” But nobody can top the bonus track here, a video of Sister knocking out “Down By The Riverside” on the aforementioned ’63 Blind Boys show.
She spoke eloquently through her music, but these words etched on her headstone reveal her everlasting, indomitable spirit: “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”
This year, when you’re looking back for musical bests, take a longer look back, and remember to give thanks to Sister Rosetta Tharpe for making a way, holding the door open for angels and devils to commingle in harmony.
My Top Ten from 2017
Sherman Holmes – The Richmond Sessions
Leon Russell – On a Distant Shore
Sharon Jones – Soul Of A Woman
Taj Mahal Keb Mo – TajMo
Arthur Alexander – Arthur Alexander
Sonny Landreth – Recorded Live in Lafayette
Jon Cleary – Live at Chickie Wah Wah
Otis Redding – Stax Classics
Chuck Berry – Chuck
Jim Dickinson featuring North Mississipi Allstars – I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (Lazarus Edition)