Celisse Henderson: Paying Homage to the Godmother of Rock and Roll

Photo by Austin Nelson at Black Rabbit Rose
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As seen in
Special Edition July 2021 – “I Belong”

Oakland native Celisse Henderson embodies the spirit of the rock and roll legends that came before. Like many, she was inspired to pursue music from a young age. Looking up to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she developed a burning passion for the guitar, which eventually pushed her to begin taking lessons at her local community college. Fast forward to 2021, and she continues to influence the world with her killer guitar skills.

Celisse’s name made its way around the industry, leading to opportunities such as paying tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe on her Saturday Night Live (SNL) performance with Lizzo and working with Jon Batiste, Mariah Carey, and many more. Music has always played such a major role in Celisse’s life, and she hopes to connect with listeners as she freely pours her soul into playing. 

Let’s start by telling us where you are from and what you dreamt of being as a kid.

My name is Celisse, and I’m from Oakland, California. I’ve always wanted to perform for as long as I can remember, and it is all I could dream of doing growing up. So much so that I began pursuing a career in this industry from a young age.

Let’s talk about what got you into playing the guitar. How did you find guitar, and what was the first song you learned to play?

Photo by Austin Nelson at Black Rabbit Rose

I got into playing guitar at 18 years old when I bought my first acoustic guitar, and then I took a beginner guitar course at my local community college. At first, I only knew four chords, but I loved to play them for fun. For most of my time playing guitar, I did not take it seriously until about eight years ago when I decided to play the electric guitar. I fell in love with it rather quickly, and the rest is history. 

Let’s talk about your Saturday Night Live performance with Lizzo. For so many guitarists, this was one of the most beautiful things to see on national television because Sister Rosetta Tharpe was never given the proper credit that she deserved. Being a pioneer in rock and roll, she was and will forever be a huge inspiration for so many people out there. Tell our readers what made you say, “I want to use this moment to honor the Godmother of Rock and Roll.” 

Well, first and foremost, I want to give the credit where it’s due; it was initially Lizzo and her team’s idea to put me on. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a huge influence of mine, and Lizzo’s team was well aware of that, which ultimately led to my performance on Saturday Night Live. Having the opportunity to work with Lizzo’s team in honoring one of the most important musical innovators in our history was a dream come true. For any folks interested in learning more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I would highly recommend the book Shout, Sister, Shout! by Gayle Wald; it is a beautiful portrait of the life and career of the legendary Rosetta Tharpe.

Speaking of the style and swag of Sister Tharpe, how would you describe your guitar style? Tell us about some of your guitar influences and why.

I am self-taught as a guitarist, so describing my style can be tricky; however, I always try to approach my guitar playing from an authentic place. For example, I played drums for a few years growing up as a kid, so my style of guitar playing is inherently rhythmic. My style is also quite guttural, mostly influenced by my singing and piano training. I also find that being a self-taught guitarist brings me a sense of intimacy in my playing, which allows me to truly be in the moment when performing live.

What are some qualities that you believe young women need to have as they enter into the music industry?

I believe that women in this industry need to cultivate a strong sense of self outside of the entertainment world. There are so many things about this business that can make someone question their value. Over the years, I personally found that prioritizing my well-being and self-confidence is a game changer.

What are some highlights of your career thus far?

I have been truly blessed with some wonderful opportunities in my career thus far—being a principal actress in the revival of Godspell on Broadway and working on television shows like 30 Rock, Rescue Me, and The Electric Company has been a blessing. Also, working with artists such as Jon Batiste, Melissa Etheridge, Mariah Carey, Trey Anastasio, and Patti Austin have been highlights. My most recent highlight would be releasing a signature artist pedal with Keeley Electronics. 

Let’s talk about your guitar(s). What is your go-to right now, and what are the specs on it?

My main guitar is a 1963 Les Paul (SG) Custom in Alpine White with gold hardware. It is by far my most toneful and resonant guitar—three PAF pickups; ebony neck; big, juicy frets; and vibrola arm (which stays in tune quite well).

What is one thing you want readers to take away from your music? 

It is my greatest desire to speak to people’s hearts and souls with my music. I hope that when someone listens to a song I wrote, they feel understood and potentially more at home with themselves. 

Finish this sentence: Music is… 

A huge part of my life and has influenced so much of who I am today that music is simply everything to me.

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