This story originally appeared in Issue #6 of Paste Magazine in the October/November 2003, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
It was the early ’60s and Sister Rosetta Tharpe danced across the stage at the Greek Theater in Berkeley like a force of nature. Dressed in a blindingly white church choir robe with a big, gold electric guitar slung across her shoulder, she moved wildly, shouting the gospel and playing fat, reverb-drenched notes that echoed through the surrounding hills like the sound of the final triumphant trumpet calling the faithful home to glory. I’d seen Joan Baez and other female folksingers strumming acoustic guitars, but Sister Rosetta played the kind of electrified soul that had so recently ushered in the rock era. The power of her music coupled with her big, booming voice and charismatic stage presence had many an atheist clapping their hands and joining in on the choruses.
Tharpe was among the first Black gospel acts to make a name for herself in a still segregated America. During World War II she was one of two gospel performers (The Golden Gate Quartet was the other) to record for the government’s V-disc project. Her soulful, consecrated singing prefigured Aretha Franklin’s later success, and she often punctuated the last word of a line with a soulful falsetto howl, a technique later borrowed by Little Richard. Her inventive guitar playing combined country, gospel and blues licks in a way that laid the groundwork for the guitar lines that would make Chuck Berry a legend—a fact he often acknowledged, according to Marie Knight, Tharpe’s backing vocalist for 25 years. “Chuck Berry was a friend of Rosetta’s,” Knight recalled. “If Chuck was in the same city at the same time we were, he’d always come to our concerts. He was enthused over Rosetta’s music and often told me that he was inspired by her.”
Sadly, most of Tharpe’s groundbreaking work is not currently available on CD, something Mark Carpentieri, president and owner of M.C. Records hopes to partially remedy with Shout, Sister, Shout. This tribute album to Sister Rosetta features a host of top female singers including the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, Michelle Shocked, Joan Osborne, Victoria Williams, Janis Ian and Maria Muldaur, who also produced half the tracks.
“I wasn’t familiar with Sister Rosetta until a few years ago, when I went to Sleepy LaBeef’s house to talk about an album he was doing for me,” said Carpentieri. “He played me a Sister Rosetta LP and told me, ‘She taught me everything I know about playing guitar.’ Then in one of those odd coincidences, someone left a Sister Rosetta tape in my car, and when I played it, it amazed me. I experienced a jaw-dropping awe, like the first time I heard the blues. I started talking to people about her, and every time I mentioned her name, eyes would light up. Her music was so powerful, I thought someone must have done a tribute to her, but I didn’t find anything. I thought it would be nice to have just women do it, and that’s how the idea started. I didn’t know who would know her or care about her, but … everybody knew of her and wanted to participate.”
One of the most excited participants was Muldaur, who helped recruit other artists for the project.
“I had the privilege of meeting and seeing Sister Rosetta perform live—and I do mean live—way back in 1962.” Muldaur recalled. “She was the opening act for the Staples Singers at a small Sunday night church performance in Newark, New Jersey. I was only 20 years old at the time, but I will never forget her dynamic, inspired and most lively performance. She came out in a long, blue, iridescent taffeta dress wielding her guitar and singing and shouting and praising the Lord and taking no prisoners. In fact, calling her dynamic would be an understatement; she radiated a sizzling, crackling, electrifying energy that virtually set that little church on fire. Her fervent singing and innovative guitar playing was a passionate testimony of her faith; she ignited and inspired all who heard her. She was one of the first major gospel stars, and although she got chastised for doing some swing songs from the holier-than-thou community, she never let that stop her.”
“I think the turning of the century made everybody stop and reevaluate things. The 20th century was rich with amazingly creative music coming out of America—jazz, blues, gospel and rock ’n’ roll, all got invented in the 20th century. I think we’re due for a new form of music, but to do that you have to stop and consider what’s already been done, especially by some of the forgotten pioneers, so that’s why we’re doing a long overdue tribute to Sister Rosetta.”
When Carpentieri called and asked Muldaur if she knew who Tharpe was, her response was so enthusiastic that he signed her up as co-producer. Muldaur brought in Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, Tracy Nelson and Del Rey, a guitarist who plays with the same fire and passion that Sister Rosetta brought to her sessions.
“I wanted to find a woman guitar player who had that kind of energy,” she said, “and I thought of Del Rey, a wailing repository of blues guitar styles; she plays good acoustic and electric guitar.
“I hired the musicians on the West Coast and organized a rehearsal. I was lucky enough to get Bonnie Raitt, another great woman guitar player, and Dave Matthews [not the singer], who works with Etta James on piano, and some other great players who know the gospel idiom. I presided over the whole thing, and we arranged the tunes on the fly, but if you have the right players, the right music evolves out of the collaboration. I could do this every day of the week. It was a natural fit. Sister Rosetta left such a legacy, there was no shortage of great tunes to pick from. ‘That’s All’ was awesome. Angela Strehli just nailed it. Rosetta had a lot of sass and attitude and that came through in Angela’s performance.”
Like Carpentieri, Muldaur also had a strange visit from the spirit of Sister Rosetta after she started working on the project. “I went to see a French movie called Amélie, with a couple of friends, and in the middle of the movie, Amélie, who is the kind of woman that’s always doing good deeds for strangers, leaves a video for one of her neighbors, and when he puts the cassette in his VCR, it’s a black and white movie of Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing in front of a choir. It just blew my mind. She was doing those windmills with her arm that became the trademark of Chuck Berry and Pete Townsend, and there she was, filling up the screen in front of me.”
“The only disappointment was the death of the great gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates. I’d called her up and had an inspired conversation with her; she was so full of the spirit of the Lord that I could feel it coming over the phone. She’d just had heart surgery, she was 70-something years old, but she said she’d be willing to do it. I told her we’d bring a portable studio to Birmingham, but she passed away before we could get down there. I was overwhelmed just talking to her—I had goosebumps, so even though we didn’t get her on the album, I can feel her spirit on it. It was a real pleasure to work with all my soul sisters in music and I hope our efforts will help shine a little light on this great artist and draw modern listeners to her amazing artistry.”
The efforts Carpentieri, Muldaur and the other artists put into Shout, Sister, Shout is evident from the opening salvo, Joan Osborne and the Holmes Brothers’ neo-Motown rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” featuring a sanctified piano solo by Seth Farber. The title tune with Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli and Tracy Nelson is a saucy take on one of Sister’s swing-flavored tunes, while Muldaur and Nelson give “Up Above My Head” a traditional gospel feel.
With so many great performances, it could be tough to pick one track as the best, but Rosetta’s friend Marie Knight steals the show with a powerful take on “Didn’t It Rain,” one of Sister’s own show-stopping numbers. “That [‘Didn’t It Rain’] song was really big for us,” Kight said. “It stayed on the charts for quite a while, and I could feel her spirit with me. I had to do both parts, and it was quite inspiring. The musicians were alert and the guitarist Jimmy Vivino was very enthused over her music; he played it exactly the way she would have played it.
“Sister Rosetta will always be with me in spirit. We traveled all through the deep South together, for 25 years, playing to white and Black audiences, strictly segregated. I remember many times working with the sheriff at the front door of the church, with the whites on one side and the blacks on the other. The [police] came because they said they didn’t want a riot. I don’t know where they got the idea from—I’ve never heard of a riot at a gospel concert—but they wanted to make sure there was peace and order. The South then wasn’t like it is now.”
One other thing that makes this tribute unique is the enclosed video clip of Sister Rosetta singing “Down by the Riverside.” Her charisma and Pentecostal joy leap off the screen, in all too brief a look at the woman behind the music.