December 01, 2004

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

By Jim Steinblatt

Guitar Slinging, Gospel Great


Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo from the Collection of Terry Cryer

Shortly after the death of Johnny Cash last year, TV host Larry King asked his daughter, Rosanne Cash, about who her father's favorite singer was. The surprising answer was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 - 1973), the guitar-playing, songwriting, gospel-singing great who also influenced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and a host of female performers.

Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, the daughter of a singing evangelist. Her reputation on the gospel circuit led to her being asked to perform as part of John Hammond's famous "Spirituals to Swing" concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1938.

Over the years, Tharpe has been credited as the writer/ arranger of such gospel standards as "Strange Things Happening Every Day," "Up Above My Head," and with Marie Knight, "Didn't It Rain." Tharpe also toured and recorded with Lucky Millinder's Orchestra and had several secular hits, including "Shout, Sister, Shout" and "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa."

Several Tharpe albums have been reissued on compact disc in recent years and, in 2003, a small Long Island-based label, MC Records, released a wonderful tribute to Sister Rosetta. The collection, Shout, Sister, Shout! features performances of songs written by or associated with Tharpe by a diverse cast of contemporary women. Among those participating were Bonnie Raitt (on guitar), Odetta, Joan Osborne, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Michelle Shocked, Janis Ian, Tracy Nelson, Maria Muldaur and venerable gospel star Marie Knight, a friend and collaborator of Tharpe's.

Muldaur recalls first becoming aware of Tharpe more than 40 years ago when she witnessed a Sister Rosetta performance in a New Jersey church basement. "Out came this woman in a blue taffeta dress with an electric guitar that she plugged in and turned up to about '11.' She just tore the roof off," remembers Muldaur. Muldaur, who herself straddles musical genres, adds, "Sister Rosetta took a lot of flak from the gospel community, as did many artists who 'crossed over' to the secular side of the tracks."

Marie Knight's connection with Sister Rosetta dates back to 1941, when they began working together. "She was really like someone in my family from the time we worked together until she passed."

M.C. Records' Mark Car-pentieri, who became interested in Tharpe recently, says, "Sister Rosetta was such an influence - she hit on everything. She cleared a path for so many. Everyone involved in the tribute wanted to repay her and it worked out very well." For Knight, taking part was a special joy - "She will always remain in my spirit and my mind."