Rock ‘n’ Roll has always been one part Saturday Night and one part Sunday morning – a mix of wild bar nights and more soulful introspection. Early rock icons like Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard all had their gospel music moments. Rock’s union of the holy and unholy, however, begins with an African-American woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta was a star on both Saturday nights and Sunday mornings in her career that lasted from the ‘30s into the early ‘60s. Although she isn’t particularly well known nowadays, the aptly named documentary Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, airing on PBS’s American Masters series, will hopefully bring more attention to this music pioneer.
The hour-long film lays out her career, which lasted almost as long as her life. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, she spent most of her childhood “on tour” with her evangelist/mother, singing and playing guitars in their barnstorming Pentecostal revival tent shows.
After being a gospel star in the ‘30s, Sister Rosetta became a “crossover hit” by recording with the Lucky Millinder jazz band for Decca Records. In the film, her biographer Gayle Wald talks of how Tharpe defied conventions with her pop career and was ostracized by church people.
There aren’t many performers who have had hits with religious-themed traditionals like “This Train” and “Down By The Riverside” as well as saucier songs such as “I Want A Tall Skinny Papa” and “Rock Me.” Wald mentions how Tharpe’s singing of the latter tune emphasized a sexuality of the lyrics over its spirituality.
The film also emphasizes her guitar-playing skills, particularly with the electric guitar. It was rare to find an electric guitar in gospel music, let alone played by a women. The esteem producer Joe Boyd (who road-managed a landmark 1964 UK tour of US blues and gospel musicians) mentions in the film how her playing influenced Chuck Berry’s.
While the documentary nicely utilizes what footage of Tharpe is available, there isn’t a lot, especially interview material. As a result, her life is told basically by friends, colleagues and her biographer Wald. Still, the viewers learn much about Tharpe. Gordon Stoker of the vocal group The Jordanaires not only shares how Elvis Presley was a big Tharpe fan but also recalls the difficulties Tharpe encountered while on an integrated tour in the segregated South. Others tell the memorable tale of Tharpe’s flamboyant wedding in Washington D.C.’s baseball stadium, even though she married a man just to have this grand ceremony. Picking a husband wasn’t among Tharpe’s many talents.
Director Mick Csáky does an admirable job in presenting Tharpe’s life in under 60 minutes, it does leave viewers, and music fans in particular, wanting to know more – more about her ground-breaking career, more about her innovative guitar playing and more about her legacy and influence. It would have been nice to have some contemporary voices talking about Tharpe (a decade ago, performers like Maria Muldaur, Victoria Williams and Michelle Shocked contributed to a terrific Tharpe tribute disc Sing Sister Sing). There could have been a deeper look into why she isn’t better remembered today. Is it because she was afflicted by diabetes (which led to an amputated leg) in the mid-‘60s during much of the folk/blues revival?
Also, there’s some irony to the fact that this documentary of an “American Master” was made in England. It feels a little odd to that the narrator is British singer Pauline Black (from the ska-band The Selecter) and not a female African-American musician like Tina Turner or Bettye Lavette. However, this overall fine effort should create an increased appreciation for this important American music figure, who somehow has been immortalized on a U.S. postal stamp yet isn’t in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.