Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Influences: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Tharpe's 1944 hit "Down By The Riverside" was selected for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004, stating that it captured her "spirited guitar playing" and "unique vocal style" which were an influence on early rhythm and blues performers, as well as gospel, jazz and rock artists. Tharpe has been called the Godmother of Rock n' Roll.
Tharpe began performing at the age of four, billed as "Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle," accompanying her mother who played mandolin and preached at tent revivals throughout the South. Exposed to both blues and jazz both in the South and after her family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, she played blues and jazz in private, while performing gospel music in public settings. Her unique style reflected those secular influences. She bent notes the way blues and jazz artists did and picked guitar like Memphis Minnie.
Tharpe also crossed over to secular music in other ways. In 1934, Tharpe married COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe (from which "Tharpe" is a misspelling). The marriage was not a happy one with Thorpe being described as "a tyrant." In 1938, Tharpe left her husband and moved with her mother to New York City.
Their popularity took a sudden downturn, however, when they recorded several blues songs in the early 1950s. Knight attempted afterwards to cross over to popular music, while Tharpe remained in the church, but rebuffed by many of her former fans. In 1957, Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British trombonist Chris Barber.
Tharpe's performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which she had a leg amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. She died in 1973 after another stroke, on the eve of a scheduled recording session. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an unmarked grave.
A resurgence in interest in her legendary work has led to a biography, several NPR segments, scholarly articles and honors. The United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Rosetta Tharpe on July 15, 1998. In 2007, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker for her grave and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania. A gravestone was put in place later that year and a Pennsylvania historical marker was approved for placement at her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Brixton band Alabama 3 (of Sopranos theme fame) named a track after Sister Rosetta on their debut album Exile on Coldharbour Lane (1997), as well as recording a version of her song Up Above My Head. In 2007, UK indie rock band The Noisettes released the single "Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)" from their album What's the Time Mr. Wolf? Also in 2007, singers Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recorded a duet version of the song "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," written by Sam Phillips. Phillips released her version of the song on her 2008 album, Don't Do Anything. Michelle Shocked opened her live gospel album ToHeavenURide (2007) with "Strange Things Happening Every Day," along with a tribute to Tharpe.
In 2001, the award-winning French film Amélie included a scene showing the protagonist's house-bound neighbor mesmerized by a montage of video clips which featured a performance of "Up Above My Head" by Tharpe.
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