In honor of Black History Month, New York public media provider WNET’s American Masters series starts its 27th season with tomorrow night’s PBS premiere of Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother Of Rock & Roll, a new documentary celebrating the largely unsung African-American gospel electric guitar hero.
Written, produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Mick Csáky, the documentary features archival performances and new interviews with the likes of historic gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds’ Howard Carroll, gospel record producer and author Anthony Heilbut and Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald.
“I like to call Sister Rosetta Tharpe ‘The Godmother of Rock & Roll’ because of the huge influence she has had on so many popular musicians during the past 70 years--from Elvis, Johnny Cash and Etta James to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Tom Jones, and Eric Clapton, through to the present,” says Csáky, whose past films for American Masters include Bob Marley: Rebel Music (2001) and Plácido Domingo: A Musical Life (1995).
“She’s just an incredibly important figure,” adds Wald, author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story Of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“She pioneered gospel sounds and specifically sanctified music outside the context of the church, which was controversial,” continues Wald, speaking of the spirited “sanctified” music tradition in African-American church services.
“She did it mainly by herself, straddling that sacred/secular divide her entire career,” she says. “Her voice and guitar archives the whole range of black musical expression in the 20th Century: You hear blues influences, gospel, R&B, what people call 'rock ‘n’ roll.' It’s all there, and I like to think of her as an archive, telegraphing that tradition to us.”
Heilbut, author of the definitive The Gospel Sound: Good News And Bad Times and the new memoir The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, The Rise Of The Soap Opera, Children Of The Gospel Church, And Other Meditations, likewise recognizes the “interesting ambiguity” inherent in Tharpe.
He explains: “The first song she recorded was the huge hit ‘Rock Me,’ by the gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey, but she sang, ‘Won’t you hear me swinging’ instead of ‘singing.’ Another song, ‘My Lord And I,’ she titled ‘My Man And I’—though in parts of the Deep South, God was commonly referred to in sermons as ‘the Man who takes care of me.' But still, she was really pushing it, and the way she sang was very erotic.”
Heilbut was actually scheduled to produce a comeback album for Tharpe in 1973 on the day she suffered her fatal stroke.
“She made extraordinary recordings starting in the late ‘30s with 'Lucky' Millinder's big band,” he says. “The most extraordinary thing in the documentary is a soundie [early music video format] with the band from the early ‘40s, singing the old song ‘Look Down That Lonesome Road’ with chorus girls dancing during the instrumental break! Then in the mid-'40s she teamed with boogie woogie pianist Sammy Price and made records that hit the pre-rhythm-and-blues ‘race records’ charts and swept the South. A couple years later she made a series of duets with [gospel/R&B] singer Marie Knight, including the hit ‘Up Above My Head.’”
Thus, Tharpe “had it both ways,” says Heilbut.
“Despite the fact that she was such a big star within the gospel circuit, she crossed over to the R&B circuit and played places like The Apollo—and had a big influence on country music,” he notes. “She made a single with Red Foley, and in the film Gordon Stoker, who sang in Elvis’s backup group The Jordanaires, says how Elvis loved her guitar playing and singing. But I love her most in her happiest environment, which was the church: She had a lusty personality and double entendres like when she said to her husband, who set up her equipment in the small churches she appeared in during her later years, ‘Oh, plug me in Daddy! Oooh, that sounds so good!’ Everybody would giggle.”
English filmmaker Csáky took on the project after chancing on a radio interview with Wald, and Tharpe’s recording of “Up Above My Head.”
“I’d never heard of her, but I suddenly sat up and listened, and went straight to my computer and looked up Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” he recalls. “I found a limited amount of clips, but there were a lot of people talking about her--and I spent half the night writing a proposal for the BBC and finished it by early morning.”
The BBC came through with support, and Csáky and a cameraman made a month-long drive up and down the East Coast to meet “wonderful people” who knew Tharpe intimately, who had stories to tell “and more important, archives tucked away in attics and garages: photographs, playbills, old discs—things that make a film come to life.”
Csáky gleaned enough material from the trip to start editing, and was able to complete the project within a year.
“She was a remarkable person,” he says of Tharpe. “Not only was she a hugely accomplished human being with a warm heart who could communicate, but she did everything at a fairly difficult time in American history, when there was racism, and it was a male-dominated world and music industry. Nevertheless she survived well and left an enormous legacy—if you know where to look.”
He notes that Bob Dylan, in the film, “considered her to be a great influence on musicians in the 20th Century, but to the general public, she fell through the cracks of history in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as rock ‘n’ roll came here to stay.”
And speaking of which, Csáky notes that Gordon Stoker was one of many musicians who wonder why Sister Rosetta Tharpe is not in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“That’s one of my objectives,” he says, “to make a contribution to the effort to get her inducted.”
It really should be quite simple.
“You see and hear her perform once, and that’s pretty much all you need!” says Wald. “She was such a dynamic and energetic performer, even looking back at videos that at this point are 50 years old, when she was already middle-aged and no longer as vital and popular as she was before there was much visual documentation. But she still transmits that energy over time.”
Still, writing Shout, Sister, Shout! “sometimes felt like a futile endeavor,” admits Wald.
“I really wanted people to hear and see, and it’s a challenge for a writer to convey that on a page,” she says.
“So I’m really thrilled the documentary is available to us, because it gives people the chance to see the video of her that was preserved, and hear the music: Although there’s not a lot of images, the music is all there, and anyone who’s interested can go and find her music easily. It’s all digitized and on CDs, so you don’t have to be a record collector to discover her--and that’s a great thing!”
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