Sunday, 16 January 2011

Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Rock & Roll's Godmother

Image by Sumlin (used under Creative Commons license)

On Friday BBC Four screened a terrific documentary about Sister Rosetta Tharpe called The Godmother of Rock & Roll. That title obviously positions the electric guitar wielding gospel singer, who had most of her hits in the 30s, as one of rock 'n' roll's unsung architects. If you missed the programme it's still available to watch on the BBC Four website.

Released in 1944, There Are Strange Things Happenin' Every Day was a not-too-subtle commentary on segregation and the first gospel song to make Billboard's "race records" Top Ten. My copy is on Roots & Branches a great compilation of songs that "inspired" Johnny Cash. In the doc Elvis is used as an example of a Southern white boy falling for Sister Rosetta's unique guitar style and phrasing but Johnny Cash often said Sister Rosetta was his favourite singer.

MP3: Sister Rosetta Tharpe - There Are Strange Things Happenin' Every Day
Buy Roots & Branches at Amazon

Carnival Saloon regulars will know that I'm not averse to a bit of vintage filth. Like many gospel singers Sister Rosetta was torn between the spiritual and the secular and in both her music and her life Rosetta wasn't backwards in coming forwards. As writer and producer Anthony Heilbut says in the documentary, when she sings "rock me" it "sounds like an invitation... and not to the altar".

MP3: Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Rock Me
Buy Sugar in My Bowl - Vintage Sex Songs on Amazon

Another highlight of the programme are clips from Granada TV's 1964 special Blues & Gospel Train, filmed in the pouring rain at a disused railway station in Manchester. On one platform were legends like Muddy Waters, Rev Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta. Watching on from the opposite side was a bunch of excitable northern students. Here's Rosetta's apposite rendition of Didn't It Rain.

If you're interested in more pre-rock'n'roll rock'n'roll another album I'd recommend is the Trikont compilation Roll Your Moneymaker. As well as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, its 24 tracks include great stuff by the likes of Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas and Junior Parker.

If you've seen the programme, do leave a comment. I'd also welcome any more Sister Rosetta recommendations.

Related Posts
Vintage Filth

Related Links
Shout, Sister, Shout! - site for Gayle Wald's Tharpe biography
The Godmother of Rock & Roll - the BBC doc

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