Saturday, April 07, 2007

Shout, Sister, Shout

Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
By Gayle F. Wald
Beacon Press

In 1998 the U.S. Postal service issued a four piece gospel commemorative set, featuring Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Roberta Martin, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Unlike the other three singers, Tharpe had a profound influence outside of gospel as an instrumentalist. While she has obviously not been forgotten, Gayle Ward argues she never received her proper due in her biography Shout, Sister, Shout!

Much Wald’s telling of Tharpe’s story involves her blurring of boundaries. For jazz and blues fans, that category cross-pollination is often attractive, but in the gospel world it can be problematic. Despite her gospel roots, many first discovered Tharpe during her time with the Lucky Millinder outfit. Wald writes of her debut with band:

“‘When Sister Tharpe opened up at the Savoy with Lucky Millinder’s band people just went wild,’ [jazz and r&b pianist] Bill Doggett recalled. ‘Everybody just loved Sister. Because she knew how to mingle with people, and she just had that, the charisma. Of course they weren’t calling it (that) then, I guess they were just calling it “show business,” but that’s what it really was. Sister really had it.’” (p. 58)

Wald clearly positions Tharpe as an under appreciated fore-bearer of rock-and-roll, making a convincing case. She quotes those closely associated with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley:

“‘Elvis Loved Sister Rosetta Tharpe,’ says Gordon Stoker, who clocked thousands of hours with Presley as a member of the Jordanaires. ‘Not only did he dig her guitar picking—that’s what he really dug—but he dug her singing too.” (p. 70)

For all Wald’s efforts to build Tharpe’s historical reputation there is an odd section (p. 88-90) dealing with rumors regarding her sexuality, which seem gossipy and out of place. While some people are quoted passing along rumors of a relationship between her and her gospel singing partner Marie Knight, according to Wald:

“Marie rejects these stories about Rosetta and herself as so much hokum. The gospel world is full of liars, she says, and it’s best not to believe the rumors and gossip other people pass off as truth.” (p. 89)

When making the musical case for Tharpe, Shout is on solid ground. Wald also gives deserving credit to her mother, singer and evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, who only recorded one album, Soul, Soul Searching, but made it count, backed up by no less than Dizzy Gillespie and his band. Most of Tharpe’s recordings are already available on CD, but if this book can help spur a reissue of Nubin’s LP (which I can attest is quite good) that would be a happy event. Regardless, Shout gives an overdue ovation to an artist whose recordings and influence straddled musical boundaries.