Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

A bouquet for Rosetta

Her roof-raising gospel vocals made her one of the first recording artists to boost spiritual songs onto the music charts, while her deft guitar work influenced Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley among other giants, but the name of Sister Rosetta Tharpe isn’t widely remembered in the U.S. these days. American Masters makes amends tonight as the Emmy-winning PBS series launches its 27th season with Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, a one-hour documentary from British filmmaker Mick Csaky, whose past films for the series profiled disparate musicians Bob Marley and Placido Domingo.
Born to two impoverished cotton pickers in Cotton Plant, Ark., Tharpe found her life course at age 6, when her mother felt the call to evangelism and joined the stream of poor blacks moving north to Chicago, where the pair joined the Church of God in Christ. Although many today mistakenly think of Tharpe in connection with country music, gospel record producer Anthony Heilbut, who became a friend of Tharpe, points out that the little girl spent her formative years exposed to a more complex and urban kind of religious singing that was a melting pot streaked with blues from the Mississippi delta and jazz from New Orleans.
While Tharpe made a vivid early impression singing in churches, her marriage at 19 to a preacher (arranged by her mother) ended badly, so Tharpe took her mother to New York and launched a brand-new career in venues such as the Cotton Club, becoming a favored colleague of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. A lucrative recording contract with Decca Records quickly followed, but while the decidedly racier songs she released sold phenomenally well, they also shocked her church fans. Eventually returning to her gospel roots, Tharpe brought a newly honed sense of show business to spiritual music that let her straddle both houses of worship and more commercial locales.
Tharpe’s performing style was so infectious and her crossover success so strong that she kept her fans happy even as she participated in such wild publicity stunts as holding her third wedding in Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, which she virtually sold out and later released a companion LP of the event. A series of love affairs with both genders likewise raised some eyebrows.
Airing on connection with Black History Month, this hour is a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in early 20th century American music.