By Charles Hallman
A new documentary that celebrates one of the most influential but largely unknown musicians of the 20th Century, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, premieres later this month on PBS.
American Masters opens its 27th season nationally with Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll nationally on Friday, February 22 on PBS. TPT Channel 2 is scheduled to air the documentary on Monday, February 25 at 9 pm.
Tharpe (1915-1973), was born in Arkansas, and raised in Chicago by her evangelist mother, where she developed her distinctive performing style singing in church. She briefly left the church for show business at age 23, and performed in the Cotton Club in New York City. But later Tharpe returned to the church and performed in packed churches and theatres across America and Europe during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Her spiritual passionate singing inspired many of rock ‘n’ roll’s greats, including Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The MSR recently talked to British writer, producer and director Mick Csaky, Tharpe biographer, Gayle Wald and Gospel producer and writer Anthony Heilbut in separate interviews.
“It was a wonderful story to tell, and a privilege to tell,” said Csaky during a phone interview from Great Britain. He briefly recalled the first time he heard about Tharpe. “I heard on the radio on the BBC late one night Gayle Wald, who’d written a marvelous book called Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It wasn’t so much the interview, but when I heard some of the music of Sister Rosetta, I actually jumped. What a wonderful, wonderful voice,” he admitted.
The British filmmaker whose previous American Masters films included Bob Marley (2001) and Placido Domingo (1995) set out to find out more about this woman.
“I spent about a year to make the film,” continued Csaky. “A key moment was the decision, with a relatively small budget, to hire a car in New York City and drive right down the Eastern Seaboard of America, visiting many places from New York to Richmond, Virginia, Philadelphia, Washington and down the Mississippi Delta, to Memphis and to Cotton Plant, Arkansas. [Tharpe’s birthplace].”
After seeing photographs and hearing Tharpe’s recordings “it gave me more than enough fuel to make the film,” noted the filmmaker.
Wald, an English and American Studies professor at George Washington University is among several who appear in the documentary. “It’s really gratifying to see Rosetta Tharpe [getting] her due,” she said. During her research on Tharpe, “The most amazing thing I’ve learned about her was that in 1951 she got married for the third time at the old baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., in front of more than 20,000 people who paid to see her wedding. She played electric guitar from center field in her wedding dress.”
A full -time writer and record producer, Heilbut wrote about Tharpe in his first book, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (1971) and in his latest, The Fan Who Knew Too Much (2012). “I knew Rosetta for a very long time,” said Heilbut. “I discussed a very tragic event 40 years ago in 1973. I was scheduled to produce Rosetta’s comeback session – she hadn’t recorded for several years — and we were planning a new album. But the day I showed up in Philadelphia to record, I learned that she suffered a fatal stroke.”
Rosetta’s influence is found from rock ‘n’ roll to country and “inspired many people [with] her very spirited singing and musicianship as a guitarist,” said Heilbut, who also appears in the documentary. “Rosetta had a showmanship and performing style that we certainly can’t find today. She was a great star not only in Gospel music but on the pop charts as well. Her impact is becoming increasingly clear. The earlier rock and rollers like Chuck Berry tried to emulate her, not to mention all the Rockabilly musicians in the country: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and all those early singers. All these men brought this woman’s sound into the pop arena.”
Wald agreed with Csaky that Sister Rosetta should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but, “getting her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is as much [lobbying] as anything else is in the world.
“It’s so easy looking at Rosetta’s performances and see how they were picked up” by many post-WWII British-born musicians, added Csaky. “I think America’s finest art form and finest contribution to world culture is African American music,” he said.
“I hope [viewers] learn how complicated and nuanced American music, especially what we call rock or rock and roll [is]. Rosetta Tharpe is proof that Black women were pioneers of that sound. They were pioneers of that style,” added the professor.
Sister Rosetta’s story “is a classic rags-to-riches-to-rags story, where she rose from nowhere to being a very distinguished performer, and then fell through the cracks of history and disappeared,” said Csaky. “Although she disappeared in the USA, she thrived in Britain and Europe during the late 60s and 70s.
“But if there is one objective of the film, I would want to see her be truly honored and inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said.
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