Monday, March 12, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, God's Gift to Rock and Roll

Midway through the French movie "Amelie",  archival footage rolls across the screen of a gospel performer who is tearing the roof off the studio.  She and a choir have perfected what is, if not the first sound of Rock and Roll, at least one of its earliest incarnations. Then the woman digs her thumbpick into the strings of her white Gibson SG and plays leads that smoke off the fretboard while she moves like Pete Townshend in full manic fury. Who the Hell was that? Who else but Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

Rock and Roll, like the Blues, gets most interesting when the sacred smacks up against the profane. Sister Rosetta (1915-1973) was playing Gospel music on stage from the time she was four. By the time she was a young woman she, unlike most other Gospel performers, was as happy to play the Cotton Club as a church down the street. The money was better, and besides, she might reach a sinner there who wouldn't show at church.

She was well-known in her heyday, played with Benny Goodman, toured Europe, and was featured in the first of John Hammond's famous "Spirituals to Swing" concerts. Johnny Cash said she was his favorite singer. Mention her today and be prepared for blank stares. But turn on your radio, and she is there whether you know it or not. She took the Church into the barrooms with full revival joy and intensity. You can call it what you want, it sure sounds like Rock and Roll to me.
(Hat tip to Wikipedia)

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