Having recorded with various jazz bands and orchestras over the years, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was well-known to jazz fans. In addition to her appearances with the Lucky Millinder and the Erskine Hawkins orchestras, heard on this disc, she performed with Cab Calloway’s Orchestra and others. In 1957 she was sponsored by the Chris Barber Band to appear with them in the U.K., and again with the Diz Disley Band to tour in Europe 1958-1960.
We also have, on this album, some half dozen songs from a broadcast of her singing with the Sims-Wheeler Vintage Jazz Band in Antibes in 1960 where both had been appearing in the Jazz Festival. (Several of the songs they performed together at that festival can be viewed on YouTube, including two from this CD: “Old Time Religion” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”)
Her influence extended to a wider sphere than just gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues. Several rock musicians, including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry, have averred she was a considerable influence on them, especially in her guitar technique, and she has been called the “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” She was among the first, if not the first, gospel singer to utilize the electric guitar to accompany herself, and she was not slow to use the tremolo arm (or “vibrato arm,” as it is also called) to get a vibrato effect on her guitar, complementing the vibrato of her voice, as we hear on several of the tracks here.
While her main interest was gospel music, Tharpe, unlike some of her contemporaries, did not shun secular music, as could be surmised from her affinity with jazz. She did leave the ranks of gospel singers for a brief time in 1938, singing in clubs such as the Cotton Club and Café Society where her material was often risqué and her so performing was frowned on by the more conservative element of her religious community.
However, after that she persisted in “crossing over” for all of her career, happily singing with jazz bands and other secular groups as well as performing in churches and other places where sacred music was performed. This disc illustrates both types of music—gospel songs and secular songs—none of the latter bawdy, however.
It is immediately evident that Tharpe has a big voice, not in terms of high volume (although she could, as occasion demanded, raise the level) but rather of power and passion, of being emotion-laden. This becomes apparent when we hear her nicely controlled vibrato at the end of many phrases. It is not wide, but just enough to suggest her emotional involvement in the material, and it is present in just about every selection, religious and secular.
She does not have to be the sole vocalist: she is quite happy to sing a duet or to enter into a kind of dialogue, a call-and-response with the backing Millinder band members who provide a vocal “chorus” on “Shout Sister Shout” and “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.” Also, she is not averse to some scat singing á la Cab Calloway even on a gospel number, as we hear on “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
Of all the tracks on this CD, I would nominate as my favorite “Oh When I Come to the End of My Journey”—a vocal duet with Marie Knight, backed by one version of the Sam Price Trio (each Price Trio on this disc has different personnel). The harmonies these vocalists achieve throughout the piece are superb, their phrasing flawless. This tune is found on only a few jazz bands’ playlists, and good though most of these versions are, none I have heard can top this one.
Next in my order of merit would be “Down by the Riverside” which, while often done by jazz bands, seldom reaches the level of excitement that Sister Rosetta and the Sims/Wheeler band—and the audience, judging by their tumultuous applause—reach here. In duration it is all too short. These two tracks, alone, are worth the purchase price of the CD.
Born in 1915, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, after some health setbacks, died at the relatively young age of 58 in 1973, the day after her final recording session. She was accorded the somewhat rare honor of having a U.S. postage stamp issued to commemorate her in 1998. Perhaps like the postage stamp, this album will serve to bring her into the ken of others to whom she was previously unknown. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was, indeed, “sensational.” (Note: One would be well advised have a magnifying glass on hand as the font used in the booklet is on the small side.)
The Sensational Sister Rosetta Tharpe from Carnegie Hall to Antibes
Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Guitar, vocals (all tracks), Accompanied by various groups, including Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra, Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra, the Sam Price Trio, and the Sims-Wheeler Vintage Jazz Band. Recorded in various locations from New York on Dec. 23, 1938 to Antibes, 1960.
1. Rock Me
2. That’s All
3. My Man and I
4. Shout Sister Shout
5. Precious Lord, Take My Hand
6. Pure Religion
7. I Want a Tall Skinny Papa
8. I Want Jesus to Walk around My Bedside
9. Sin Is to Blame
10. The Devil Has Thrown Him Down
11. Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread
12. God’s Mighty Hand
13. This Train
14. Oh, When I Come to the End of My Journey
15. Heaven Is Not My Home
16. Ain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down
17. Old Time Religion
18. That’s All
19. Trouble in Mind
20. Down by the Riverside
21. Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
22. The Lonesome Road