Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a rock and roll pioneer who seamlessly blended gospel and secular music in an electrifying style all her own. She possessed a wonderfully unique voice, superlative guitar prowess, and a powerful live performance. PBS will be airing an American Masters episode on her life and music, titled American Masters Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll. It debuts on Friday February 22nd, as the opening episode of the 27th season of the series.
I was given the opportunity to interview Mick Csáky, the show’s director.
Why did you choose Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
As a documentary filmmaker, I am always on the lookout for subjects that might resonate with the television watching public. By chance, in mid-2009 I caught the end of a BBC Radio interview with Gayle Wald who was in the UK promoting her book SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT! The Untold Story of Rock & Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It was when Gayle introduced an audio recording of Sister Rosetta singing “Up Above My Head” that I really sat up. The electrifying experience prompted me to find out all I could about Sister Rosetta. Twenty four hours later I had put together a proposal to make a documentary biopic. Two months later I was filming an interview with Sister Rosetta’s oldest friend Roxie Moore in Baltimore. I spent all of 2010 making the film which first aired on BBC television in the UK in 2011. This year, I cut a special version of the film for the PBS series American Masters.
Who were Tharpe’s musical influences?
Her mother (Katie Bell Nubin), as well as important gospel artists like Arizona Dranes, and sanctified pianists. She continued to be influenced throughout her career: by blues, jazz, R&B, etc.
How did Tharpe learn to play guitar? Was she entirely self-taught?
It’s hard to say whether she ever received formal instruction in the church, although she certainly received instruction from her mother who played the mandolin. She refined her technique as she came into contact with other guitarists.
Why did she choose guitar?
Her first instrument was actually the piano, which she learned on her mother’s lap. Many would say the guitar chose her! A little girl playing guitar with that level of confidence was a rare sight!
It seems that Tharpe didn’t view the guitar as simply an accompaniment- she developed quite a facility on the instrument.
She played the guitar as a second “voice”, to complement her own vocal instrument. She developed a picking style in which the guitar was not secondary, but its own thing. In fact, her guitar prowess outshines her vocal performance early in her musical life.
Do you know who her guitar-influences were?
To my ear, her voice as a young woman is incredibly powerful and quite unique. That said, she took much of her inspiration from other gospel instrumentalists. Arizona Dranes, who played piano, imprinted herself on Rosetta’s guitar style.
Do you know what her primary guitar was (brand, model), or what her preferences in an instrument were?
No. But judging from video footage, she played an up-to-date instrument. In the 1960s, she was playing a white Gibson SG.
From where did Tharpe get her flamboyant stage performance style?
She grew up in a church context in which emotional display was the style of the day. I don’t mean to say she was an “emotional” performer, but that she portrayed emotion quite convincingly. It is worth noting that she grew up in a context in which one could not always rely on a microphone, amplifiers, and good acoustics. So she learned to “make do”, which meant playing in ways that could ensure that she was seen and heard in the back rows of the church.
Tharpe’s connection to secular music, and performing in nightclubs often offended some of her fans who gravitated to her gospel work. It seems like Tharpe had two opposing fan bases. How did this dichotomy affect Tharpe?
I like to think that she managed to please both fan bases as result of her infectious, warm and ebullient personality. Yes, it is true that she offended many of her church-going fans by performing “sexy” songs in the Cotton Club and Café Society, but it was not long before they forgave her – especially when she returned to her roots and stuck to gospel songs.
What were her thoughts about the criticism she received from her religious-leaning fan-base?
Of course, I do not know exactly what her thoughts were. However, it is obvious that she was a natural entertainer from a very early age. Wherever she was performing, in nightclubs or in church, she wanted to please her audience. She adored the applause. Clearly, her God-fearing mother Katie Bell was a strong influence on her life, always reminding Sister Rosetta of her love of God. However, there was something of a rebellious streak within Sister Rosetta that prompted her to cross boundaries.
What effect do you think Tharpe’s move to New York City in 1938 had on her music?
It introduced her to some of the finest musicians of the day, like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Of course, growing up in Chicago had exposed her to the vibrant sounds of Jazz that had migrated north from New Orleans but Harlem took her to another level – not least in terms of sheer showbiz style.
How significant to Tharpe’s career was her Carnegie Hall performance with John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert?
It was a huge boost for her among a certain politically left, artistically bold white crowd. It would have legitimized her talent.
Tharpe’s collaboration with Sammy Price was interesting in that often piano and guitar share the same harmonic space in their roles in an ensemble (and thus end up stepping on one another’s toes, so to speak). Do you know how Tharpe and Price avoided the potential collision?
Price presided over their sessions, which would have been difficult given Rosetta Tharpe’s own determined voice and personality. Apparently, they didn’t always get along during those sessions.
To what do you attribute Tharpe’s decline in popularity in the mid/late 50s? Do you believe it was due to her failed foray into straight blues in her 1953 album with Marie Knight?
I think Sister Rosetta simply fell through the cracks of history. With Rock & Roll sweeping away most other forms of popular music (thanks to the likes of Elvis Presley), Sister Rosetta suddenly looked very old fashioned. There was an irony in this in that Sister Rosetta had been such an inspiration to so many young Rock & Roll musicians who grew up in the 40s and early 50s listening to her music on the radio, day in, day out. Of course, it is true that she was not very well managed by her third husband Russell Morrison. By all accounts, he was not a very effective manager, as several interviewees in my film clearly state.
What is your favorite Tharpe single?
There are too many singles to choose from but I guess my favourite single performance has to be her rendition of “Didn’t It Rain” the day she sang it for a TV show that was recorded on location, in the pouring rain, on a disused railway station outside the city of Manchester in front of an audience of English university students who had never seen anything like it.
Why do you think Tharpe hasn’t had the same commercial success as some of those she influenced (e.g. Chuck Berry, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, etc.)?
By the late 50s and early 60s, when young musicians like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry had broken onto the music scene, Sister Rosetta was middle-aged. In spite of her enormous influence, she was an “oldies’ act” by the late 50s. Equally, she was a black woman at a time when Rock & Roll was a very male dominated form of popular music – mostly performed by white musicians.
Do you feel that Tharpe was the originator of Rock and Roll?
In a single word “YES”. That is why I feel so strongly that she should be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It seems very unjust that she has never been publically acknowledged in that way, especially when she is so universally acknowledged by so many musicians.
Why do you feel her music has had such an enduring effect on listeners over the years?
Of course, her spectacular dexterity on the guitar will always make people sit up and listen – that swaggering panache and showmanship is mind-blowing. However, I think it is the warmth of her singing voice and her personality that will always shine through and touch people’s hearts. I defy anyone not to be moved by her rendition of songs like “Up Above My Head”, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, “Precious Memories” and Precious Lord”.
In your research of Tharpe and making this special, what information has had the most profound effect on you, and why?
I guess I was reminded of just what a male dominated, racist nation the USA was during the time that Sister Rosetta was alive. Of course, things were getting better as she grew older, but I find it impossible to accept the fact that stars like Sister Rosetta could not stop at hotels while on the road or eat in restaurants – especially in the Southern states of the USA.
What do you hope to accomplish through this television special?
I very much want to introduce Sister Rosetta to people who have never been lucky enough to have seen or heard her before, but most of all I want to see her inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame where she belongs.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the project?
I feel immensely grateful to Gayle Wald for writing her inspirational biography of Sister Rosetta SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT! The Untold Story of Rock & Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was my Editorial Consultant during all stages of the production of the film, keeping me on track during research, writing, filming and editing.
Be sure to check your local listings for this fantastic PBS special premiering on Friday Febrary 22nd. On behalf of Guitar Girl Magazine, I’d like to thank Mr. Csáky for his time, and Natasha Padilla for her efforts in arranging the interview.
Cover Photo Credit: PBS.org
Rosetta Tharpe Photo credit: Thirteen.org- Full length publicity photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the age of 23. Photo taken in 1938 by James J. Kriegsman. Photo courtesy of the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture.