Happy 100th birthday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

March 20, 2015 • 8:25 am

JAC: Mirabile dictu—we’re having two contributions by Matthew Cobb today. But that is only meet since I’m reading his entire book to furnish him with a blub. (How about this one: “Life’s Greatest Secret is, in the end, no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick”?) Actually, the book is excellent and you should buy it. His first post is about music, and the next one will be about science: the new paper in Nature about the genetic constitution of the UK’s inhabitants.

by Matthew Cobb

Over at The Guardian, Richard Williams draws our attention to the fact that today, 20 March, is Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 100th birthday. Tharpe was a pioneering blues/gospel singer and guitarist – Williams (who knows about these things) calls her ‘the godmother of rock’n’roll’. If you want to know more about her career, here’s her Wikipedia entry.

She died in 1973, aged only 58. In 1998 the US mail commemorated her on a stamp:

Rosetta Tharpe on her 1998 US commemorative stamp.

Here’s a famous film of one of her concerts, which has a personal connection for me. In a UK concert from 1964, she played a fantastic version of ‘Didn’t it rain’ (being Manchester, it did). My sister Liz was in the audience! Note how she and the band start off in different keys, then she sorts it out and gives a stupendous performance:

Here’s the back story. In May 1964, a group of incredible blues and gospel singers, including Tharpe, Muddy Waters and the Reverend Gary Davis, toured the UK. On May 7th, they played a televised concert in Manchester, at a disused railway station called Wilbraham Road, in South Manchester. The station was jazzed up as some kind of caricature of a rural Deep South location, complete with hay bales, and was rebaptised ‘Chorltonville’ for the occasion (this has led to the widespread but mistaken belief, repeated by Williams, that the concert took place at the neighbouring station of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which is the area of Manchester were I live; I have written a stern letter to The Guardian correcting this egregious error).

The concert was televised by Granada TV, who hired a special train to leave Central Station, not at quarter past nine, but at 7:30, and which took an audience of 200 or so young blues fans from the middle of Manchester out to Wilbraham Road. When they arrived at the station and piled off the train, there was Muddy Waters playing on the platform!

Here’s an extract from the 1964 TV programme, tajen from a recent BBC documentary, showing the train (dig the excitement of those cool kids), Muddy Waters, and the beginning of Sister Rosetta’s performance (NB it is mistakenly labelled 1963, and the commentator makes the same mistake about Chorlton…).

And for full atmosphere, here’s a scan of a ticket (not my sister’s, sadly, but taken from this site about disused UK railway stations…):


Here’s another, bluesy, number – Trouble in Mind – taken from the same concert, featuring some great guitar playing:

And what about this rocking version of Up Above My Head from the early 60s – listen to that guitar solo!

The BBC recently made a programme about her – I think made by Mick Csáky  – which is going to be repeated tonight on BBC4. Here it is, in four bite-size Youtube chunks:

24 thoughts on “Happy 100th birthday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

  1. Great links! Now I’ve gotta turn off CSPAN and spend breakfast time listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe! I’ve always loved her guitar playing and singing.

  2. “But that is only meet since I’m reading his entire book to furnish him with a blub”. Gotta get out my english-coyne translater…jk, keep up the good work!

  3. Fantastic stuff. The greatest positive effects of otherwise potentially dangerous superstitions and mysticism seem to be music and art. I’m including sculpture, architecture, poetry, even dance.

  4. I’d never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe before today. Wow! Thanks for educating me on this woman’s amazing talent!

    1. What a voice! The modern day singers who have taken up some kind of super irritating vocal modality could learn a lesson from Sister Rosetta. I would LOVE for someone whose voice is similar to Sister Tharpe’s to become a frontwoman for one of the fine retro/blues/stoner bands of rock’s underground. In fact, Ft. Worth’s Wo Fat could benefit greatly with a vocalist of this caliber. Hell, the incredible rock music created by Steve Moss of The Midnight Ghost Train would soar with such a vocalist.

      I, too, had not known of Sister Rosetta prior to today, so, thank you Matthew. What a treat!

  5. Today also is the 50th anniversary of LBJ informing Alabama Gov. George Wallace that federal troops would be sent to keep the peace when MLK & Co marched from Selma to Montgomery.

    1. The good LBJ.

      Robert Caro, I think, referred to Johnson’s civil rights record as the golden thread in the purple ribbon of his madness in Vietnam.

    2. Also, that’s the kind of use of federal military power even I can get behind. Far as I’m concerned, Johnson should have left the federal troops there. Hell, Lincoln should have left the federal troops there, then the nation wouldn’t have had to have waited another hundred years for a “civil rights era.”

      And, oh yeah, sing it, Sister, sing it!

  6. The train station performance is available on a superb DVD series (from the Experience Hendrix organisation)called ‘American Blues Festival’. (There are four I think in all).

    And I think these recordings important visual records in many ways actually, as well as being fascinating and entertaining to a high degree.

    They feature well-shot live performances in Europe – Germany mainly I think, and also the UK.

    There are plenty of genuine bluesmen and blueswomen featured… The very great Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, JL Hooker… and many more.

    They are a real treat for any blues fan…

  7. Wow, the taste in music on this site is unimpeachable. Sincere thanks, Matthew, for posting about one of the most under appreciated and import guitarists of all time. That’s no hyperbole either, I make my guitar students study her playing style.
    Her shoulders, along with many other nearly forgotten African-American blue guitarists form the 40′ and 50’s, were stood upon by the the guitar wizard luminaries of acid and arena rock. Without Rosetta to blaze the trail we may never have heard from Hendrix, Clapton or Trower.

  8. Now that was an emotional roller coaster ride. I read the headline and was suddenly very happy and excited that I’d been mistaken about Sister Rosetta’s death, only to come crashing back down when I realized that it was simply the new trend of referring to the anniversary of a deceased’s birth as a “birthday”.

    You’d think we believed in life after death or something.

    She was an amazing musician, and it was unfortunate that she occasionally suffered from guilt about her secular popularity. You’ve chosen some great examples of her work here.

  9. Tremendous way to start my day, thanks for that. Have a few friends who would be just as chuffed.

  10. What most people don’t realize is that the British Invasion in the early 60’s started with British blues bands who started listening to black blues records from the 40’s and 50’s and adopting riffs and often covering songs, so it was actually a re-importation of American blues. They got airplay because they were white artists and weren’t subject to the racial restrictions still in place on American radio. I grew up in Detroit and in the late 50’s and early 60’s, we had to listen to Canadian radio stations to hear the latest Motown records. Just listen to the early Rolling Stones for examples of of the blues influence or Cream’s cover of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful–great bass line!

  11. Correction, Matthew? The ticket refers to “the old disused Wilbraham Road Railway Station, Chorlton-cum-Hardy…” so I don’t think anyone can be blamed for trusting what it says.
    Municipal boundaries may have shifted, or been drawn weird in the first place – I can think of examples where what’s officially part of one suburb is cut off by a rail line or highway and everyone treats it as part of another.

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