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Author Topic: Sister Rosetta Tharpe biography  (Read 2087 times)

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Offline outfidel

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe biography
« on: March 17, 2007, 06:00:00 PM »
Can I Get an Amen?

March 18, 2007
The New York Times

The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
By Gayle F. Wald

In 1950, as the gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was preparing for a guest performance on Perry Como?s television show, ?The Chesterfield Supper Club,? she was instructed to climb into a horse-drawn wagon and sing ?White Christmas? while simulating a country hayride. The Rosettes, her backing group, were told to wear bandannas. Tharpe objected to this latter indignity ? not an easy thing to do for a veteran singer hungering for a large audience ? and the Rosettes eventually performed without the demeaning bandannas. As Gayle F. Wald demonstrates in ?Shout, Sister, Shout!,? a short, absorbing biography, this was just one of many instances in which the expectations of the entertainment industry and the aspirations of this genre-defying artist were painfully out of sync.

Though the success Rosetta Tharpe attained during her four-decade career was largely in gospel music, she is most admired for her feisty R&B guitar playing. Listen to a few piquant licks from her 1938 Decca recordings, and the sonic vernacular of rock ?n? roll is sharply apparent. Yet, though her upbeat music and charismatic performance style attracted adherents like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, Tharpe is only lately being accorded her rightful place in rock history.

The R&B charts of the 1940s attest to her popularity, and songs like the rollicking ?Strange Things Happening Every Day? (1945) provide evidence of her show-stealing talent. But Tharpe?s career, which shuttled between sacred and secular modes, never settled into a niche that would have made her an avatar of any one musical moment. The music press could never quite place her either, inventing descriptions that complemented her honorific, like ?holy roller singer? and ?hymnswinger.?

In the 1940s, when big bands were hiring pretty girls with sweet voices to bob over their beats, Tharpe fronted Lucky Millinder?s raucous swing outfit with gutsy force. In the late 1950s, when blues revivalists prized rootsy growls and acoustic guitar twangs, she happily shouted praises over electric riffs. And when early rock historians reached back to trace the form?s lineage, this middle-aged lady cheerily shouting and soloing in front of robed choirs didn?t quite fit their secular, guitar-as-phallus ideal.

Rosetta Tharpe?s story, salvaged here by Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University, is very much a woman?s story, refreshingly free of Svengalis and impresarios. Her picaresque journey from Pentecostal child prodigy in Cotton Plant, Ark., to preteen phenom on Chicago?s church circuit to Cotton Club darling to one of gospel?s first recording stars is constantly surprising.

In Wald?s previous book, ?Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture,? an academic examination of racial construction, she showed a taste for the messiness and necessary creativity at the margins of American cultural life. This interest helps her parse Tharpe?s musical contradictions and sensitively explore touchy issues like the hymnswinger?s rumored bisexuality, which some in her circle deny. The author finds humor and pathos in the tale of Tharpe?s third marriage ? a publicity stunt worthy of reality TV, staged on the field of Griffith Stadium in Washington and followed by a concert performed by Tharpe in her wedding dress.

Absent the personal recollections of Tharpe, who died in 1973 at the age of 58, the book relies on intimates and musical heavyweights, from her singing partner Marie Knight to the gospel singer Willa Ward-Royster of the Ward Singers to Isaac Hayes. Count Basie?s trumpeter Sweets Edison recounts her scorching performance for ?From Spirituals to Swing,? a groundbreaking 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. And of Tharpe?s guitar prowess, Jeannette Eason, the wife of the steel guitarist Willie Eason, offers the assessment, ?Rosetta got her man in her hand,? an elucidation that beats any cultural-studies jargon outright.

Of course, fellow musicians also give more sobering accounts of the obstacles confronted by this resourceful woman, whose livelihood depended on wowing affluent whites at the Cotton Club and touring the Jim Crow South in a cramped bus that doubled as diner and hotel. But the hard-earned joy of Tharpe?s ascent, which comes through in her music, regularly drowns out the heartbreak. Archival clips on YouTube support anecdotes like the one told by her fellow Apollo performer Inez Andrews, who remembers Sam Cooke chiding guitarists after they shared a stage with Tharpe: ?Man, I wouldn?t let a woman outplay me!? Maybe not, but now they?ll all have to move over a step or two to make room for the good Sister?s big break into the canon of rock and soul legends.

Laura Sinagra writes about pop music and film for a variety of publications.
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