If Sister Rosetta Tharpe had sung secular blues instead of the gospel music to which she devoted her prodigious performing career, she would be revered today as the greatest ever female rocker, an icon on par with contemporaries like Hank Williams and Robert Johnson.
But unlike Williams and Johnson, Tharpe had nothing going for her when it comes to the business of becoming a music legend. She didn't die very young (born in 1919 she died in 1973 after a long performing career). She was a woman. And, most of all, she sang gospel (sure Hank sang gospel too, but not exclusively).
But in the 1930s and 1940s no one was bigger or more influential that Sister Rosetta. And only Sister Ernestine Washington could top her for sheer power and spirit. If you care a whit about American music and you're unfamiliar with Sister Rosetta's best work your knowledge is incomplete.
Rosetta's records, though gospel, were juke box hits along the chitlin' circuit where they influenced everyone including Ray Charles (the best thing about Taylor Hackford's cliched Ray Charles biopic—besides Jamie Fox's spectacular performance—is its representation of the chitlin' circuit.). She began performing with her mother along the gospel highway as a teenager in the 1920s. In those noisy, unamplified rooms she developed a clear, bold voice that cut through the din like a great lead trumpet player with a smoking big band. And her guitar playing, Lord Almighty, was one of a kind. Playing in an open tuning she had a set of stock riffs and gestures on which she would rely. But her speedy runs and driving downstroke grinding riffs resounded all the way down to the guitar playing of Chuck Berry.
Rosetta took gospel to places it hadn't gone before (and some said it should never have been)-- sin-filled nightspots like the Cotton Club and Cafe Society--when she began performing as a featured singer with Lucky Millinder's big band in the early 40s. And in so doing she started the ball rolling on the fusion of spiritual and secular music that became rock and roll—especially audible in the tracks she cut in front of the trio of boogie woogie pianist Sam Price.
Her repertoire has bestowed rock a number of standard tropes and themes thanks to songs like like “This Train” (which Woody Guthrie adapted for “Bound for Glory,” Curtis Mayfield adapted for “People Get Ready,” and Bruce Springsteen adapted for “Land of Hopes and Dreams”), Thomas Dorsey's “Rock Me,” and “The Lonesome Road” (the only song I know that was recorded by Tharpe, Van Morrison, and Frank Sinatra!). Her 1941 version of the classic “Trouble in Mind” (first recorded in 1927 by Chippie Hill backed by Louis Armstrong), cut with Lucky Millinder, is damn near definitive. And her touchstone song, “I Looked Down the Line,” remains the greatest sinner's dream of redemption ever recorded.
Unfortunately there is no great single disk anthology of the best of Sister Rosetta—nothing that pulls together the best of her solo recordings of the late 1930s, her early 1940s sides with Millinder, and her records with the Sam Price trio, but British label Proper has put together a a 4-disk set that pulls much of the material together at a price that's comparable to that of a double disk set. I haven't heard the Proper set though I know most, if not all, of the material presented on it. That's the sound of Sister Rosetta. Desert Island material if you ask me.
For an unbeliever I listen to a shocking amount of gospel music, but I listen to none of it more often or with more of a sense of wonder than I do the music of the miraculous Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You go, girl!
UPDATE: It turns out that a well-chosen, single-disk Rosetta Tharpe anthology does exist--MCA's horribly titled The Gospel of the Blues, released just last year. The disk contains most of the crucial tracks--Rosetta's solo verison of Thomas Dorsey's "Hide Me In Thy Bosom" (aka "Rock Me") from her first session in 1938; her signature composition "This Train;" "Trouble in Mind" from 1941 with Lucky Millinder; the great jump blues "Strange Things Happening Every Day;" and the boogie version of "Up Above My Head" with the Sam Price Trio and singer Marie Knight. But there are some odd choices too--the producers seemed to lean heavily on novelties (like one of Rosetta's only secular recordings, the drecky "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa," and the call and response big-band feature "Shout, Sister"). Also, despite the collection's title, the producers apparently chose to include more corny, old-fashioned material (like "God Don't Like It" and "Down By The Riverside" w/ Millinder ) while leaving off other classic gospel blues material (Tharpe's 1942 recordings of Thomas Dorsey's "Precious Lord" and R.H. Harris' "Walk Around" which had been Harris' first recording with the Soul Stirrers). Tharpe's great slow blues performance on "Its Nobody's Fault But Mine" is included here. However, there is one glaring omission on the MCA disk---MIA is "I Looked Down the Line and Wondered," one of Tharpe's signature songs, a song she began performing at age 12. Why did the producers leave this off? Unfathomable. I don't yet know the quality of the 78 transfers but I ordered a copy of the disk so I'll find out.