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TV Review: American Masters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll

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On February 22, PBS will air American Masters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll. I had the opportunity to prescreen it. If you have an interest in American gospel, blues or rock music, do not miss this program.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the most influential gospel singers in America in the ’30s and ’40s, and she put her stamp on the blues and big band music as well. In the ’50s, she was an enormous influence on all those young white boys in Memphis who started playing what became rock and roll, including Elvis Presley. The way she played electric guitar changed the face of music and she went on to influence young British musicians in the ’60s. Until her death in the ’70s, she was a popular and beloved artist. Yet many people today do not know her name.

This PBS documentary is a fascinating look at Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her times. The documentary uses vintage film and commentary from friends and musicians who traveled with her, including Bob Dylan, and members of The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Jordanaires, who had broken racial barriers by traveling with Sister Rosetta (and who sang, not coincidentally, behind Elvis.)

Sister Rosetta may have been the first gospel artist to have her name on the side of a bus, but The Jordanaires had to bring food to her on the bus because she could not eat in any white restaurant or stay in any white hotel. She played in white nightclubs and black churches. She crossed color lines and lines between secular and religious music. She was her own person and she was not like anyone else. To hear her sing “Up Above My Head” is still a joyous and exciting experience, and you can hear echoes of her in blues and rock to this day.

The show covers Tharpe’s life from the time she began performing with her evangelist mother at age six until her death. It is a fascinating and important look at a true American master.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.