the first rock and roll guitarist-- 6/09/16

Today's selection -- from Cafe Society by Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is viewed by some as the first rock and roll guitarist. Tharpe first gained widespread attention performing in Barney Josephson's Cafe Society, a New York City nightclub, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Josephson's club was the first to both feature black jazz artists and allow black patrons in the audience, and he brought a stellar variety of previously little known black talent to the broader public -- including Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. Here, Josephson reminisces about Tharpe:

"Sister Rosetta Tharpe not only could sing electrifying gospel but what an acoustic guitar she could play. [Jazz promoter] John Hammond explained, 'She is one of the first to use it for melody-plucked lines. Her technically astonishing lead breaks invented the rock and roll guitar.' In his 1938 'From Spirituals to Swing' concert, Sister Tharpe 'was a surprise smash; knocked the people out.' 

"Rosetta Tharpe was a child star. Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, she was a baby when her mother took up preaching, traveling from church to church to spread the gospel. As a four-year-old, Rosetta was already singing and playing the guitar. She was the big attraction that brought in the worshippers to her mother's services.

"Rosetta Tharpe was a pioneer. When she sang gospel on a secular stage she scandalized the sanctified church. They never forgave her. Religious folk opposed singing in cabarets; it was synonymous with the Devil, God's enemy. They told Sister Tharpe that either she serve the devil or God. She would respond that the Lord knew her heart and it wouldn't lead her astray. She was the first gospel singer to sign with a major recording company and to appear in a nightclub -- mine. Her song style was filled with blues inversion. ... She bent her notes like a horn player, and syncopated in swing band manner. My secular audiences were fascinated with her blues-oriented gospel, a first for many of them.

"[Critic Malcolm Johnson wrote] 'Sister Rosetta Tharpe rates unqualified enthusiasm for the stirring quality of her songs sung in the spiritual vein of swing tempo. At Cafe Society she is offering some new compositions of her own.'


Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson


Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People


University of Illinois Press


Copyright 2009 by Terry Trilling-Josephson


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