Friday, February 22, 2013

A Joyful, Amazing Noise: Sister Rosetta Tharpe Remembered on PBS

I recently did a cover story for the Metro Times in Detroit on the Andantes, the most prolific background singing group in the history of Motown Records. It's estimated that Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow-Tate performed on more than 20,000 individual recordings in the 1960s and 1970s, yet you say you've never heard of them before? No surprise: They were in the background, get it? (You can read their story by clicking here, but give yourself a few minutes. It is a cover story, after all.)

It's a tragedy for present and future generations when amazing artistic talent becomes lost to the sands of time. And it's an oversight good ol' PBS (what would we do without 'em?) seeks to correct in the case of one remarkable performer when it opens the 27th season of American Masters with the fascinating story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll on Friday, February 22 (9 p.m. EST in most markets). It's a wondrous perfect storm of scheduling: The return of one of the network's finest series, a salute to Black History Month and the 40th anniversary of her death.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, c. 1940 (courtesy Don Peterson/Charles Peterson)
I worked as a professional rock critic for the better part of 15 years, yet I must admit the name Rosetta Tharpe was unknown to me. (This might suggest that I wasn't very good at my job, but I reject that.) Sister Rosetta, who died in 1973, was America's first crossover artist, establishing herself as the seminal gospel music superstar before becoming a principal influence in mainstream popular music. 

To kids who grew up in the 1940s and early 1950s, she was Taylor, Gaga and Beyoncé, all rolled into one. When you see the vintage clips of her playing the newly electrified guitar – with a rootsy, rhythmic, mesmerizing energy most women can't emulate even today – you are instantly drawn to comparisons with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, even Jimi Hendrix. Then it hits you: They didn't inspire her; she inspired them.

"Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe," declares Gordon Stoker, who, as a member of he Jordanaires, performed with them both. "Not only did he dig her guitar playing, but he dug her singing, too." 

Born in the wonderfully evocative-sounding town of Cotton Plant, Ark., Rosetta was taken by her evangelist mother to Chicago at the age of six and became a COGIC (Church of God in Christ) child, developing her unique performing style in the church. In 1938, at the age of 23, she made the leap into show business, much to the shock of the churchgoing throngs who had grown to adore her gospel sounds. 

Credit: James J. Kriegsman
Her songs, like her big hit "Tall Skinny Papa," were drenched in sexual innuendo. She sang with Lucky Millinder's big band, became a regular at iconic New York venues like The Cotton Club and Café Society, and was a favorite musical guest of both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Rosetta loved churches and nightclubs and had her talent firmly planted in both. But eventually she returned to her first love, gospel music, touring with the Dixie Hummingbirds, packing churches and theaters across the U.S. as well as Europe and becoming a popular mainstay on radio and the fledgling medium of television.

Of all the talking heads whose insights inform this doc, I most enjoyed the enthusiastic memories of Ira Tucker, Jr., son of the Hummingbirds' Ira Tucker, Sr. But I would have liked to know more – heck, I would have liked to know anything – about how Tharpe learned and mastered her rocking, bluesy guitar brilliance as a young black girl in the South of the early 1900s, an element of her story this hour overlooks. And while this American Masters offering is a British-made production (what's up with that?), I question the choice of British actress Pauline Black as narrator. It's continuously distracting to hear the tale of a gospel-blues queen from Cotton Plant, Ark., described by someone who sounds better suited for Downton Abbey. What, they couldn't fly in Cicely Tyson for a week?

Still, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll is a revealing, captivating study that will make you wish you'd known Rosetta longer – and better. It's well worth your time. On a scale of 1-10 remotes, I give it 7 boxes. 
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