I first learned of Sister Rosetta Tharpe when I read Tony Heilbut’s landmark book, The Gospel Sound, in the early 1970s. It was an eye-opener for me about gospel music, and the culture he illuminated and sounds he described were happily matched by what I soon heard on records by Sister Rosetta as well as the Staples, Swan Silvertones, Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Soul Stirrers, and others. Reading Heilbut got me in the habit of making pilgrimages to Skippy White’s on Washington Street in Boston, and later to Cheapo Records in Central Square, Cambridge, to look for gospel. I don’t think there was an outlet for the music in Worcester record stores, but by the time I read of these great artists it was already second nature to catch a bus, hitchhike, or drive to the Hub for records and live jazz, blues, and soul.
Without knowing what to make of her powerful appeal, Mahalia Jackson’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show made her the first gospel artist (or religious singer of any kind) that I heard as a kid, and it was through her that I first experienced the great soul feeling of African American music. But for awhile, Mahalia was primarily a table-setter who whetted my appetite for James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and other icons of soul music. Arthur Conley was the first Southern soul artist I ever saw in person, and while I went to his show at Assumption College on the strength of his big radio hit, “Sweet Soul Music,” his live show felt much more like a revival meeting than any soc hop I’d ever attended. From thereon, I understood that the soul singers like Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket, Lou Rawls, Gladys Knight and many others had either deep backgrounds in the church, or had sung with touring gospel groups before crossing over into secular pop and r&b. Heilbut’s book filled in a lot of these blanks, but it was mostly devoted to gospel groups and singers who’d remained more or less on the sacred side of the street.
It didn’t take long before contemporary soul music made Mahalia seem a bit too wholesome and maternal for this young fan, but Rosetta, with her joyous shout, brash guitar, and driving gospel blues, was another story. Here’s a great example from the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival of Sister Rosetta singing a tune she’d first recorded with Cab Calloway in 1941. Have you ever heard a nastier guitar tone? Apparently it was too much for the Newport Folk Fest a year earlier where Rosetta didn’t catch on like Odetta, but here it’s a different story.
It was through Peter Guralnick’s profile of rockabilly singer Sleepy Labeef that I learned of Rosetta’s impact on Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a generation of Southern-born white rockers who’d grown up in and around Pentecostal churches. Later on I would hang out with Sleepy after his area appearances. He never drank anything stronger than coffee, so we’d sit at Jake’s in Northampton where he’d express deep respect for Rosetta’s holiness and her influence on him and Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, James Burton and other guitar players.