I first heard about her in the Discord & Rhyme podcast where they reference her in the Rhiannon Giddens episode as well as the Unexpected Guitar episode.
In the Unexpected Guitars podcast episode, there was a link to this video of her performing “Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air" that pique my interest https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeaBNAXfHfQ
It’s a traditional gospel song but that performance and arrangement transcend the genre. The electric guitar is the predominant backing instrument rather than a piano or organ with her intermittent riffs. Rhythm and blues arrangement with a strong march-like riff and boogie-woogie-esque piano. However, the song explodes at 1:40 where Sister Rosetta Tharpe plays a blistering guitar solo that is more Bluesbreaker-era Clapton rather than anything else. Learning that her recording career was from 1938 to 1961 made me realise that this is way ahead of its time and made me want to explore her career and eventually a complete discography listen.
Now her only album that has its own Wikipedia page was Gospel Train and I note that was referenced as a seminal album when she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. This led me to listen to Gospel Train first. However, by mistake, I didn’t listen to the album but a compilation of the same name the Decca 1958 compilation https://www.discogs.com/release/3443079-Sister-Rosetta-Tharpe-Gospel-Train. This is a compilation of singles from the 1940s.
If it was a real album it would by far be the greatest pre-60 album ever written and a clear-cut 15/15 Hex 10. It’s gospel mixed with rhythm and blues mixed with 60’s rock conception of guitar hero. Most of the songs were recorded in the 1940s. This eventually led to me listening to all her albums listed on Wikipedia and then eventually her 7 Volume Complete Recordings set.
So what makes that album so great
- She is one of the greatest acoustic guitar players of all time. I am no historian but I suspect she probably pioneered the whole concept of the “guitar solo” within a band where she blasts out an extraordinary soloing on an acoustic guitar that rocks harder than most electric guitar players. I suspect the whole traditional rock song format structure of verse/chorus/bridge/guitar solo structure owes a lot to her.
- She is one of the great vocalists. She’s is a got a boomy, powerful voice similar to Aretha Franklin and she has great vocal belting. My general view is that the greatest male singer can sound feminine convincingly and the greatest female singer can sound masculine and Rosetta Tharpe fulfils that. Imagine if Aretha was a virtuoso guitar player as well as a great singer and you’ll get Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
- Great songwriting and one of the most melodic songs ever written. Now I have mentioned many times that I am a huge fan of continuous flowing melody where you have one melody line leading to another without significant repetition which she was able to achieve. However, what makes some of her songs uniquely special is her ability to consistently create guitar riffs in between every vocal line and each riff is different. In her greatest songs you will have a completely continuous non-stop melody without any pause from beginning to end due to the guitar filling in every pause from the singing and then taking centre stage during the guitar solo. Sometimes for example in “Isn’t It Rain” she would play a melodic counter-melody at the same time as singing the entire verse
In terms of where to start. I would recommend listening to the two Gospel Train recordings. First, listen to the “Gospel Train” 1958 Decca Compilation and then the “Gospel Train” 1956 Mercury Album. The compilation demonstrates her guitar playing. The celebrated 1956 Mercury album is great but predominantly its greatness is with the songwriting/vocal performance rather than the unique proto-rock and roll guitar hero. It’s great similar to how Aretha Franklin Lady Soul is great but you don’t get why she is such an exceptional. The guitar playing while still present is less present in the mix and more of a background.
If you like the two releases. I would just recommend going through the entirety of “Frémeaux & Associés” 7 Volume Complete recordings in order. Each volume has at least 2CD (the 7th volume has 3CD).
My preference for Sister Rosetta's career is her early career before she went electric. Volumes 1 and 2 are some of the greatest music of all time. It also showed her eclecticism. You’ll have solo Sister Rosetta Tharpe as the blueswoman with just her and an acoustic guitar and demonstrate she can sustain a song purely on her ability as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist. Then you have Sister rosetta Tharpe as a vocal jazz performer that is idiosyncratic and unique. Initially, you will think this sounds like generic big band vocal jazz music and then suddenly in the middle of the song you’ll have a rock and roll guitar solo played on the acoustic guitar or she will be beginning. Then you have the gospel mixed with rhythm and blues. Like a lot of great artists, she kind of defies genre convention that she is blues, jazz, gospel, rock and roll/rhythm & blues and guitar hero.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe invited controversy when she was playing sacred music within a secular venue with showbiz flamboyance which was considered blasphemous and pushed the boundaries of the genre and alienated “purists” within her community. As a result of this in her mid to late career she started to perform “pure” gospel music that at times are completely absent of guitars. Unfortunately, by the time she became electric, the guitars were mixed low in the mix and were less prevalent in her songs. I don’t think her electric guitar playing was adequately captured in the studio and the electric guitar shedding in the youtube video is the exception rather than the rule you’ll hear more of that style of guitar playing in her early career with the acoustic guitar. While I am sure that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a great live artist, in terms of live albums there are solo works with just her and an electric guitar. While that has the potential to be outstanding, unfortunately, what you’ll hear is clear vocals and muffled guitar playing that sounds almost like someone recording a vocal take and having sounds from the guitar coming from headphones bleeding into the microphone. As a result, it's an enjoyable but not essential listening
Gospel Songs (Decca, 1947) Hex A 11/15
Blessed Assurance (Decca, 1951) – Hex 7 9/15
Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956) – Hex D 13/15
The Gospel Truth (Mercury, 1959) Hex A 11/15
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (MGM, 1960) Hex 6 8/15
Spirituals in Rhythm (Promenade, 1960) Hex 6 8/15
Sister on Tour (Verve, 1961) Hex 6 8/15
The Gospel Truth (Verve, 1962) Hex A 11/15
Precious Memories (Savoy, 1968) Hex 9 11/15
Live in 1960 (Southland, 1991) Hex 9 11/15
Live at the Hot Club de France (BMG/Milan, 1991) Hex 9 11/15
Gospel Train (Compilation Decca 1958) – Hex 10 15/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 1 1938-1943 – Hex E 14/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 2 1943-1947 – Hex E 14/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 3 1947-1951 – Hex D 13/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 4 1951-1953 – Hex C 12/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 5 1953-1957 – Hex D 13/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 6 1958-1959 – Hex A 11/15
Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe Volume 7 1960-1961 – Hex C 12/15
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