Sister Rosetta Tharpe
The Original Soul Sister

Cutting an unforgettable figure, guitar in hand, Sister Rosetta Tharpe goes down as one of the most innovative, pioneering and virtuoso Gospel artists to emerge from the mid 20th century.

Born in Arkansas in 1915, Tharpe was a child prodigy, showing the guitar to be akin to an appendage of her own body. As the daughter of travelling missionary (and artist in her own right) Katie Bell Nubin, Tharpe quickly sharpened her skills as she accompanied her mother to churches across the nation, especially of the Sanctified denomination.

CDHer style is likened to that of her secular counterpart, Memphis Minnie, with considerable blues influence. With her steel-bodied guitar always up front, and with an equal vocal gift, Tharpe quickly was in demand, not only in the church (she signed with Decca in 1938 and caused a buzz with her astounding covers of Dorsey tunes such as "This Train" and "Rock Me"), but also in nightclubs.

She sang and played in front of such big name orchestras as those of Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman, and also recorded several times with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. In 1938, Tharpe sang at the historic "From Spirituals To Swing" concert in Carnegie Hall.

In the 1940's, Tharpe toured extensively with The Dixie Hummingbirds, and joined forces with songstress Marie Knight, forging a musical relationship that lasted several years.

Anthology specialists Proper Records has issued a fabulous, 4-CD boxed set of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's work, titled Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Original Soul Sister, accompanied by a thick, 40-page book of historical photos, liner notes and exhaustive discography information, courtesy of Joop Visser Raved.

Rosetta Tharpe with Cab CallowayEvident from every track is the fact that for Tharpe, the guitar was not merely accompaniment. More often than not, she gives her instrument 'equal billing', so to speak, opening up extended guitar solos (such as on her cover of Washington Philip's "That's All"), showing herself to be virtuoso.

The first disc (subtitled "Shout Sister Shout") offers a selection of songs beginning with Tharpe's first material, from her Decca sessions starting in 1938, including "Rock Me" and the anti-alcohol message of "God Don't Like It". Also on this disc are several songs with collaboration from Lucky Millender and His Orchestra, showing Sisters Rosetta Tharpe to be quite at ease in a big band setting ("Trouble In Mind", "Rock Daniel").

"Rock Me" is the subtitle of the second disc, and serves to further accent Tharpe's integration into the swing circuit, with cuts included from wartime broadcast of "Jubilee", a live-recored radio broadcast aimed by the AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Services) aimed to entertain overseas troops. On "Sin Is To Blame", she is backed by Erskine Hawkins & His Orchestra, and on another take on her hit "This Train", she teams up with Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.

Rosetta Tharpe with Cab CallowayThe third disc ("Singing In My Soul") of this boxed set retrospective follows Sister Rosetta into the late 1940's, as she moves out of the swing orchestra setting, and into other avenues of expression. Notably, there are several selections with The Sam Price Trio, with rollicking piano pushing her on ("Jonah", "Jesus Is Here To Stay"). Several of Tharpe's largest smashes are included: "Strange Things Happening Every Day" and "Five Fishes and Two Loaves Of Bread" are among them.

Disc Four ("This Train") puts the spotlight on Tharpe's work with Marie Knight in the mid 1940's, the two singers working together, and off each other, playing their contrasting styles to maximum effect. There's more of Tharpe working with the boogie woogie vibe of The Sammy Price Trio ("Beams Of Heaven", "Heaven Is Not My Home".), plus a great take of "Down By The Riverside" and an organ-filled "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord", which brings in the James Roots Quartet (giving her guitar a break).

As a pioneer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is recognized throughout the musical community, influencing subsequent Gospel, jazz and rock artists, from Michelle Shocked to Chuck Berry. She also was one of the first to dare to bring the Gospel outside the traditional church setting —an original soul sister indeed.

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Producers: Various
Proper Records

reviewed by Stan North

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