Friday TV: Rockin’ with Sister Rosetta Tharpe

RosettaTharpeThe biggest wedding ever held in Washington D.C. — bigger than those for any official or cult leader — was likely one fifty years ago in old Griffith Stadium.

There, some wily promoter hatched an idea that Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the biggest names on the gospel circuit, who was one of the first to break into the secular recording world with her big soulful voice and her blazing electric guitar, could draw a crowd with a wedding. They could sell tickets. Then they could record the ceremony and sell that to a recording company.

Great! The only thing missing was a likely candidate for groom. Eventually, she decided Russell Morrison, who was also her manager, would be a suitable candidate. And so the event occurred, the crowd cheered and the bride played electric guitar from center field.

Yet, as recounted in a new bio film on her life, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll” on “American Masters” (PBS,  9 p.m., check local listings), it was not necessarily the highest profile moment in her career.

Those who have seen errant clips of Tharpe performing know she is an unforgettable performer, who melded traditions of gospel to a wider audience than the evangelical tent, who, just as she hooked you into her voice would let loose with that amazing electric guitar sting. So effective was she on the instrument, it’s a wonder that she didn’t spawn a whole line of electric guitar women after her. That may only because it was still quite rare to see clips of her performing up to the internet age; the sound of her instrument itself instead inspired all manner of rockers from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix.

And the way she shifted from gospel to pop predated a sacred/secular dichotomy that would go on to fuel or riddle the careers of Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Prince and R. Kelly. Elvis especially was drawn to the way her gospel approach captured audiences, and how she used that feel to keep capturing them in more secular songs.

The bio film by Mick Csáky, who previously chronicled the lives of Bob Marley and Placido Domingo, draws on a dwindling number of colleagues and eyewitnesses in talking about Tharpe’s long career; a big source is her biographer Gayle Wald of George Washington University.

Born in Cotton Plant, Ala., 1915, Rosetta made her first singing appearance in a Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where her mother moved her early in her career. She was six. As she grew up in Chicago, she learned guitar and sang as her mother preached.earning reknown on the gospel circuit.

She got married to a precher and continued to travel as a husband-wife act in churches. But her life took a change when she joined the Cotton Club Revue in 1938 with Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers dancers.

She starts to publish some of her enduring songs, like “This Train,” which Bruce Springsteen dips into for his shows these days, and her first recordings for Decca included a reworking of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Hide me in Thy Bosom,” now called “Rock Me.”

She plays John Hammond’s famous From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, plays the Paramount with Count Basie and is the first gospel soloist to play the Apollo.

After she joined the Lucky Millinder Orchestra in 1941 her songs turned more worldly, with songs like “(I Want a) Tall Skinny Papa.” When she goes solo in the mid-40s she has a hit with “Strange Things Happening Every Day” and “Up Above My Head.” It was at this recording height that she had her big wedding in D.C.

From there, she started to influence a whole new generation of artists in tours to Britain and Europe. A groundbreaking 1964 tour with Muddy Watters, Otis Spann and Sonny Terry and Brownie MdGhee draws big crowds and gets a UK special, “Blues and Gospel Train” which features a couple of her performances — thankfully included in the  bio film.

Tharpe lived until 1973, when she was still recording despite health maladies. Only in recent years have fans raised money to mark her grave in Philadelphia. The PBS film has a chance to further spread the gospel of this wonderful artist.


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