Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll (PBS, 2013; originally produced in the U.K. in 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the PBS American Masters special Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll, a worthy tribute by Mick Czaky to the trailblazer of African-American gospel music and someone who broke through the barriers with a bulldozer. Born in Arkansas in 1915 to a ne’er-do-well father and an evangelist mother, Katie Bell Nubin, Rosetta went with her mom to Chicago when she was just six and became an integral part of her mother’s evangelism, drawing crowds with her precocious singing and guitar and piano playing. In 1934 her mother arranged for her to marry a minister, Pastor Thorpe of the Pentecostal Church in Philadelphia, but Katie’s hope that her daughter would be able to partner with her husband personally and professionally (as another gospel-music pioneer, Sister Ernestine Washington, did with her minister husband) were dashed; apparently Pastor Thorpe was a domestic tyrant who told his wife, “My way or the highway” — and Rosetta, who kept her married name but changed its spelling to Tharpe, went to New York and had a weird dual career, singing at the Cotton Club on weeknights and in churches on Sundays. This was a very controversial career move, since Black churchgoing audiences were notoriously intolerant of anyone who tried to cross over into the secular music market (not until Aretha Franklin recorded her Amazing Grace and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism albums in the 1970’s and 1980’s did a major secular soul star pull off a return to her church roots; when Sam Cooke tried to sit in with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel group with which he’d launched his career, he was literally booed off the stage and heckled with comments like, “Get that blues singer off the stage! This is a Christian program!”), but with the sheer force of will and energy that seems to have powered not only her music but her whole career, Tharpe pulled it off. When she signed to sing with Lucky Millinder’s band — Millinder was one of the great Black hopes of music, having taken Chick Webb’s old place as leader of the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem (and he would manage to keep his career going when other Black bandleaders faltered by embracing rhythm-and-blues in the late 1940’s), and though he neither read music nor played an instrument, Dizzy Gillespie (who was briefly in Millinder’s band and made two records with it) said Millinder was the best conductor he ever had. Tharpe’s first records were made for Decca in 1938, backed solely with her own acoustic guitar and aimed squarely at the gospel market — they included her first recording of her trademark song, “This Train,” later covered by Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bruce Springsteen — but when she joined Millinder, instead of just standing in front of the band and singing the way good little band singers were expected to, she got a big electric guitar and ripped through song after song.

In 1941 she shot two “Soundies” — three-minute music videos made to be seen on a “Panoram,” a sort of video jukebox — with Millinder’s band on “Shout, Sister, Shout” (a major hit that fused gospel and R&B 13 years before Ray Charles supposedly became the first artist to do that with “I Got a Woman,” his star-making 1954 hit on Atlantic) and “That’s All” — and the contrast is utterly amazing. There’s Lucky Millinder, dressed to the nines in a white suit, standing in front of his band and sedately conducting a bunch of musicians in suits and ties, sitting behind music stands and running impassively through their arrangements — and in front of them is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, moving in time to the music, playing that huge electric guitar (which was loud enough she had no trouble being heard over all Millinder’s musicians), rockin’ out and looking like she got beamed in from 20, 30 or 50 years later. (Alas, those clips were not included in this documentary, though a couple of other “Soundies” she filmed with Millinder just as a singer, not a guitarist, are.) According to this documentary, Tharpe — like the great blues queens of the 1920’s, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith — was Bisexual, and though the show doesn’t quite come out and say that her performing partner from the late 1940’s, Marie Knight (by that time she’d quit Millinder and permanently abandoned any secular crossovers; she was a gospel singer, pure and simple), was also her lover, it certainly implicated it, especially noting that their professional association ended abruptly when Tharpe married for the third time, to a man named Russell Morrison who wanted to be both her husband and her manager. Though the documentary portrayed him as basically an incompetent wanna-be who just wanted to live off his wife’s money and cheated on her besides, Joop Visser’s liner notes for the four-CD Properbox set Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Original Soul Sister says that Morrison had previously managed the Ink Spots and therefore had some credentials in the music business. It’s unclear just who arranged this, but the Morrison-Tharpe wedding became a media extravaganza; it took place in 1951 in a baseball stadium that seated 25,000 people (and it sold out!), it was followed by a gospel concert featuring Tharpe, her backup singers (the Rosettes — even there she was blazing a trail later followed by Ray Charles and Ike Turner!) and some other music stars, and the whole thing was paid for by Tharpe’s record label, Decca, which issued the whole event (or as much of it as would fit on one disc) as an LP with, of course, a gold-ring motif on the cover. (And despite the suspicion of a lot of Tharpe’s friends that Morrison was just a gold-digger, she stayed with him for the remaining 22 years of her life.)

When her popularity began to fade in the U.S. in the 1950’s, she concentrated on touring in Europe, where most of the TV footage featured in this documentary was shot — including an incredible film that would be worth reissuing in its entirety, a 1964 special for British TV filmed in Manchester and featuring Tharpe with Muddy Waters and other blues stars. (Though the only other participants mentioned on the Godmother documentary are Waters and Country Joe Pleasant, the imdb.com page for the show includes Willie “The Lion” Smith, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis and Ransom Knowling, the great bass player who was essentially to the 1940’s Chicago blues scene what Willie Dixon was to the 1950’s and 1960’s: the go-to guy whenever any producer wanted a rock-solid rhythm player for a blues session.) The gimmick was that the audience arrived for the show on a train, and when it pulled out of the station the audience was on one side of the tracks and the performers were on the other — and they had to project across the yawning gap between them and their listeners. There’s a remarkable clip of Tharpe introducing one song with an extended electric solo playing what would be state-of-the-art rock guitar now; she not only plucks, she taps the strings, she does glissandi with her fret hand without strumming at all, she even shreds! Anyone who could watch that clip and not realize that all rock ’n’ roll is really just Black gospel music with secular lyrics needs to have their ears cleaned out! Tharpe’s latter years were sad; she still had her musical powers when she did her last filmed performance, in Copenhagen in 1970, represented here by her version of the gospel classic “Precious Lord” that (as John Ardoin said of Maria Callas’s recording of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) comes off as “more a resignation to death than a transfiguration through it.” Even in her early years, when she recorded this song for Decca, Tharpe had approached it quite differently from Mahalia Jackson (who had the crossover hit on it for Columbia in 1956 and established it as a gospel standard; Mahalia sang it at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968 and Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia’s funeral in 1972); they’re both great versions but Mahalia’s makes her life and death seem like the culmination of a giant struggle, a sort of how-sweet-thy-victory attitude towards death, while Rosetta’s is quieter, gentler, more an acknowledgement that death is inevitable but what lies beyond this world holds no terrors for a good Christian.

Tharpe’s music is infectious; to me she’s at her best playing either with a big band (Millinder’s or Louis Jordan’s, with whom she never recorded commercially even though they were both big sellers on Decca throughout the 1940’s) or a partner like Marie Knight (with whom she recorded one of her biggest hits, “Up Above My Head,” in which Knight’s Mahalia-ish gospel contralto and Tharpe’s jazz-rock-gospel soprano inspire each other vividly) or pianist Sam Price (with whose trio she covered Mahalia Jackson’s breakthrough hit, “Move On Up a Little Higher”), and as good as her records are this documentary suggests that she really soared when she played live. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s career came to a sad end in the early 1970’s when she caught diabetes; her foot, then her leg, turned black and had to be amputated, and though she continued to perform almost to the end (the year she died she recorded a final album for the Savoy label), she inevitably lost a lot of her energy and had to do her last concerts sitting down. (By one of the grim ironies, 20 years after Tharpe’s death, diabetes and amputation would silence another one of the great African-American woman singers, Ella Fitzgerald.) The PBS Web page for this show includes a button asking people to vote to call on the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame to induct Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but as far as I’m concerned she practically is the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; as this documentary demonstrates, she influenced virtually every singer, songwriter or guitar player in rock history, from Chuck Berry (who stole a lot of her licks) and Elvis (there’s a marvelous interview with Elvis’s friend George Klein, who remembers the two of them sneaking into Black churches to hear Tharpe — and having to sit in the back, a weird and ironic inversion of the way Blacks were segregated to theatre balconies and the backs of buses, and not just in the South, either!) to just about everyone since; after the Tharpe show KPBS ran an Austin City Limits featuring Gary Clark, Jr. (a surprisingly talented Black singer-songwriter-guitarist, clearly influenced by Jimi Hendrix instrumentally but with a softer, more ballad-soul voice) and the racially mixed rock band Alabama Shakes — and damned if their front person, heavy-set African-American singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, didn’t seem to be following in the giant footsteps of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.