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Sister Rosetta Tharpe


20 January 2018 Blog The Queen Street Observer

Hey! Hello and welcome to another year of blogs on TCRfm. The entertainment awards season is upon us, The Grammies, The Golden Globes and of course The Academy Awards are just around the corner too. Much less glittering but always of interest is The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Awards ceremony which takes place in New York in April each year. The Hall usually announces the inductees late the previous year and if spontaneous human combustion is your preferred spectator sport then this is the awards bash for you.

As sure as night follows day each year’s nominees are met with a tidal wave of online outrage and derision, usually along the lines of  ‘Seriously Rock Hall, Fleetwood Mac this year but no place for Napalm Death??’ Okay, I’m exaggerating maybe a little but not by very much. Particular ire is reserved for any nominee who’s perceived to be ‘Not rock ‘n’ roll’ with rapper turned actor LL Cool J the latest to be on the receiving end of a fearful amount of flak. I refuse to get hot and bothered about all of this, I mean, shouldn’t we all reserve our irritation for the things in life that really matter? More to the point I’m with Steve Van Zandt’s opinion all the way when he says that rock and roll is a broad church which takes many forms, each of which is as valid as the next. That said there have been some glaring omissions over the years, the most obvious to many people, me included, being Warren Zevon. Each year, no Warren and you begin to wonder why. Perhaps he’ll make the list in 2019. We’ll see.

Anyway, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame itself is situated in Cleveland Ohio and I’ve had the privilege of visiting a couple of times. If you like your music mixed with a little history then it’s the place to be. From ruffled shirts worn onstage by Jimi Hendrix to the horn-rimmed glasses worn by Buddy Holly the night he died, or how about the splintered Fender bass that Paul Simonon is pictured smashing on the cover of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’? These and so much more, they’re all there. Sacred relics. Oh, and the adjoining store does a nice range of T-shirts tailor made for radio presenters of a certain vintage to be seen in when the weather allows, Wayfarers to be worn too to complete ‘the look’, naturally.

Back to this year’s nominees, the least known name on the list but one which was greeted with near universal approval is that of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Up to January of last year I’d never heard of Sister Rosetta. I was at an Emily Barker gig in Dublin and Emily spoke eloquently about Tharpe before performing her song dedicated to her, ‘Sister Goodbye’. My curiosity piqued I made a point of researching the good Sister as soon as I got home. What I discovered was a woman considerably ahead of her time, as Rolling Stone magazine put it ‘A queer black woman from Arkansas who shredded on electric guitar, belted praises both to God and secular pleasures, and broke the colour line touring with white singers, she was gospel’s first superstar, and she most assuredly rocked’.  Rosetta Tharpe was born in a town called Cotton Plant in 1915. I’ve looked up images of it and if it looks archetypically desolate, small town America today we can only wonder what it must have been like a century ago. By all accounts she was a child prodigy, learning to play guitar by the age of four and was at the peak of her powers during the 1930s and 40s playing the clubs and dancehalls of America.

It was her guitar playing though which places her as such a pivotal figure at the birth of rock and roll. One of the first songs of hers that I picked up on is called ‘Strange Things Happenin’ Everyday’ – it dates back to around 1944 and listening to it you can trace a line directly to what followed just over ten years later, Elvis, Chuck Berry and everyone else. Her influence extended to Britain in the 1960s after she toured with Muddy Waters, with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck citing her as an influence.

So get yourself off to the internet then, YouTube has a ton of stuff worthy of anyone’s time. Discover the power of this woman’s work and see and hear why Sister Rosetta Tharpe most definitely does deserve her place in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Next month with Valentine’s Day on the horizon (again!) the Observer takes on a romantic hue, the big softie that I am.

Talk to you then!

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