The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe


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The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Documentary about gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who played a significant role in the creation of rock & roll, inspiring musicians like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.


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Transcript


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Ladies and gentlemen, at this time,

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I take great pleasure, in bringing to you,

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one of the greatest,

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one of the world's greatest gospel singers...

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..and guitar virtuoso...

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..the inimitable

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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In the summer of 1964, in the pouring rain, from a disused railway station outside Manchester,

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a 49-year-old African-American woman with an electric guitar appeared on British television.

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Viewers had never seen anything quite like it.

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With her distinctive style of singing and playing, this remarkable

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performer would profoundly influence the course of popular music.

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# Didn't it rain, children?

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# Rain, oh, yes

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# Didn't it just, didn't it? You know it did

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# Didn't it? Oh, oh, yes

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# How it rained

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# I said it rained, children

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# Rained, oh yes

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# Didn't it just, didn't it? You know it did

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# Didn't it? Oh, my Lord

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# How it rained... #

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'She had a guitar that was made of steel'

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and it was loud.

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She'd get on that one string and start banging on it

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and people would go crazy.

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She could play a guitar like nobody else...nobody!

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Let's do that again!

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I think Rosetta was a hugely important figure.

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'She was really unique as a guitar player.

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'She had a big influence on Chuck Berry

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'who was one of the most influential guitar players in the world.'

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'She did incredible picking.'

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That's what attracted Elvis, was her picking.

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He liked her singing too, but he liked that picking first

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because it was so different.

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# Don't you know this train is a clean train?

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# Everybody ridin' in Jesus' name

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# Because this train is a clean train... #

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She had a major impact on artists like Elvis Presley.

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When you see Elvis Presley singing early songs in his career,

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I think if you imagine that he's channelling Rosetta Tharpe.

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'It's not an image that we're used to thinking about in rock and roll history.

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'We don't think about the black woman behind the young white man.'

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'All the kids who grew up in the '40s and '50s knew of her as a superstar'

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and so I think it's very fair to say

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that there's a bit of her snuck up in all of rock and roll.

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# This train is a clean train

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# This train! #

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Hey!

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APPLAUSE

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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INAUDIBLE

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born close by the mighty Mississippi,

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on March 20th 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas.

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# Gracious memories

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# How, how, how... #

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Her parents Katie Bell and Willis Atkins were cotton pickers

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# Yeah, yeah, how... #

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'We don't know too much about Rosetta's father.'

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What we do know about the father is that Willis Atkins could sing.

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And so it's possible that some of her gift of singing came from her father.

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Her mother was an evangelist for the Church of God in Christ.

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Her mother was incredibly passionate about the Church.

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Rosetta's mother, Miss Katie Bell we called her, was a very traditional person

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and basically she was what we called a "stomp down Christian".

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I mean that's one that enjoyed stamping her feet

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and patting her hands and celebrating what she believed in.

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GOSPEL SINGING

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'Well, the reason that Rosetta became such a strong woman was because of her mother.

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'Her mother again was the same type of person. She had no fear.'

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She would take her guitar, she would take her tambourine.

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She would take her chair and sit outside and play

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'for people and try to convert them, to get them to go to church.'

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GOSPEL MUSIC

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In 1921, Katie Bell left Rosetta's father

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to become a travelling evangelist for the Church of God in Christ.

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Taking the six year-old Rosetta, she left Cotton Plant

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and joined the exodus of poor black southerners heading north.

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There was work in the great city of Chicago,

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and also something even more crucial for the young Rosetta.

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The migrants brought the blues from the Mississippi Delta and jazz from New Orleans.

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Rosetta is often seen as a country singer, but that's a fallacy.

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Her major development occurred very early. She moved to Chicago when she was six.

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She, and mother Bell, joined Robert's Temple Church of God in Christ,

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and the Chicago Sanctified Church

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was bubbling with musicians and new songs.

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And so she was exposed to something that was new. It wasn't rural.

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It was an urban kind of religious singing.

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It was at that church that she first really started performing.

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She was the main attraction.

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There's a great story that she was put on the piano when she was six years old on the top of a piano,

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holding a guitar, being put there, so she could be seen

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by the congregation and playing, and singing and charming everyone with her talent and her precociousness.

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# There's something within me... #

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She told me that when she was a girl, not even ten,

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she was immediately seen as an all-purpose musician.

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She'd go to a revival and she'd play her guitar

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and if the people would get happy afterwards and shout,

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she'd drop the guitar and run to the piano and

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accompany them with her piano chords,

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and then she might get up and cut a couple of dance steps herself.

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She was a phenomenal show-woman.

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# On life's battlefield

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# When without pleading My poor heart did yield

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# All I can say Praise God

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# There's something within... #

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All through her teens, Rosetta was taken by her mother from

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city to city, to perform in churches, tabernacles, and revival meetings,

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winning the hearts of thousands with her demure looks, angelic voice and unique guitar style.

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# Have you that something? That burning desire... #

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She soon became a nation-wide celebrity within the church.

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And this Philadelphia church is one of the first she performed in,

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back in the 1930s.

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GOSPEL SINGING

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Those who heard the young Rosetta were inspired for life.

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When I saw Rosetta I was about ten years old.

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Oh, she had the most beautiful voice and the way she could speak to you.

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It made you feel different.

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You knew something was going on,

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even if you didn't really understand what it was.

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And that's the way it was for me because I was a child.

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GOSPEL SINGING

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'Many of the hymns were the expression of suffering,'

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and wanting to survive, many of them.

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And when she came and they saw the expression of her,

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the freedom that she expressed in her singing and dancing,

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it woke up the congregation. It focused them on something that was on the inside,

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that they never gave expression to.

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Rosetta would start looking up.

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She didn't look at anybody.

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She looked up as if she saw God.

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It was as if God was in her and she was communing with him, rather than with a human being.

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In 1934, when Rosetta was just 19, her mother married her off to a preacher, The Reverend Tommy Tharpe.

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For the next four years, she and Tommy worked for the Church of God in Christ.

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Her job was to draw the crowds while he preached from the pulpit.

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But, in spite of her mother's good intentions, the marriage wasn't working out.

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# Look up

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# Look up

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# And see your maker

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# Before Gabriel... #

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'I met Sister Rosetta in the summer of 1937.'

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She seemed a little bit glad that she was married,

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but she didn't seem to be very happy,

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and that's the reason I took to her, because I wanted to

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just make her happy, make her feel as special as she really was.

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But I had no idea that she and Tommy wouldn't make it.

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'He was a tyrant.'

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From what my parents used to say,

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he seemed to come out of the real, real sub-old school

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and believed in the almost caveman-like attitude towards women.

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I found that he really wanted her,

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because he figured they could use her to make money to help him make a living, and that's the truth.

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I hate to say that, but that's the way it turned out to be.

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She was just a meal ticket.

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She was a performer

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and he used her to bring people to his churches and he would put her up to sing.

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And after a few years, she had enough and she said "You know what?

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"I'm going to leave all of it!"

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And she made that big jump.

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Let down by the first of several men in her life, Rosetta left her husband

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and took her mother to New York, to forge a new life for herself.

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'My husband and I, we separated a little later too.'

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So she said "Well, Sister, why don't you come to New York and stay with

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me and Mama for a little while until you decide what you want to do".

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So I did, I went there.

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'We would sit up all night long

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'and sing and she'd pick the guitar softly'

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and we'd both sit up there and cry.

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We'd cry because we didn't know where we were going from there.

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In a city full of nightclubs, Rosetta's talent was soon noticed.

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She was offered a spot at the prestigious Cotton Club, singing to an up-market white audience.

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But the songs she was given by the men in charge made no mention of God - just pleasing her man.

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# Four or five times

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# Four or five times

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# It's my delight doing things right

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# Four or five times

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# Now, baby I'll sigh

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# And maybe I'll cry

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# But if I'll die I'm gonna try to make

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# Four or five times

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-# I said four or five times

-Four or five times

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-# Four or five times

-Four or five times

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# Now he's my king he makes me sing

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-# Four or five times

-Yes indeed

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-# I confess

-I confess

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-# He is the best

-He is the best

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# That's the test Four or five times... #

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'It was like a bomb had dropped on gospel music when she flipped.'

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It was like "What? I can't believe it. That's Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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"She's not supposed to be singing that kind of music!"

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'Oh, she was criticised and ostracised.'

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I mean the church people thought she'd gone way off.

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# Four or five times

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# Oh, four or five times

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# It's my desire To set the world on fire

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-# Four or five times

-I hear you talkin', sister

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-# Maybe I'm wrong

-Maybe you're wrong

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-# Then, maybe I'm right

-Maybe I'm right

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# But right or wrong I'm gonna swing this song

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# Four or five... #

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'Actually, it was hurtful to a lot of people,

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'because they felt as though they'd lost something.'

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They had something and it was great, but now it's gone.

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They viewed it almost like a death.

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You know, "Rosetta is gone.

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"She went over. She's like in another world."

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# Maybe I'll sigh Maybe I'll cry... #

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But having discovered that she loved God AND nightclubs, Rosetta decided

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to sing gospel in church and join the secular world of show business.

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No longer the good little girl from church, she was happy to defy convention.

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# One, two, three, four Four or five times! #

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The offers poured in.

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She was wanted by all the big bands of the day.

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She decided to go with the band leader Lucky Millinder and manager Moe Gale.

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In October 1938, she signed a contract with Decca Records

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which was keen to capitalise

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on the novelty of a gospel singer with a racy new style.

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This wasn't the path that her devoted mother Katie Bell had chosen,

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but she stuck by her daughter.

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# Now won't you hear me singin'?

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# Hear the words that I'm saying... #

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Her first hit was a song called Rock Me

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and the lyric is, "Jesus hear me praying".

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She sang "Won't you hear me praying".

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So when she came to the chorus when she sang, "rock me", and growled "rock",

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it sounded, to many people, like an invitation - and not to the altar.

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# In the bosom

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# Till the storms of life is over Rock me in the cradle

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# Of our love... #

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Recording the song in that particular way marked her as someone

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having the nerve to re-interpret a spiritual song for a secular audience.

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I think there was also a piece of her that was just rebellious.

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-# I want a tall skinny papa

-Yeah!

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-# I wanna tall skinny papa

-Yeah... #

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She does some very risque material with Lucky Millinder,

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most notably a song called Tall Skinny Papa,

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which was a big hit for Millinder's band.

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She was the lead singer on that and she sings "I want a tall skinny papa".

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There's no way off misinterpreting "I want a tall skinny papa"

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for anything to do with spirituality.

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-# Tall, tall skinny papa

-I want a tall skinny papa

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# That's all I'll ever need... #

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The next thing I heard was this recording out of Rosetta with the Tall Skinny Papa.

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So I said "It can't be Rosetta!" So I went and bought the record.

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And after I listened to it I said, "Oh, my goodness, Sister is out there singing that stuff".

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So, when I saw her, I said, "Sister, I heard you tell Lucky Millinder

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"that you weren't going to sing that stuff".

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She said "When I saw that contract he had a clause in there, that I had to sing whatever he gave me,

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"and I didn't know it. I have a seven year contract with him and I had to do it."

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It's unclear how much agency

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she had in making a recording like Tall Skinny Papa.

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She was under contractual obligations to Lucky Millinder.

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She was a young woman without a lot of experience in show business.

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She may not have been comfortable with that material.

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Nevertheless, it's on record and was a big hit.

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# Look down, look down That lonesome road

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# Before you travel on

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# Look up, oh, look up... #

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Following the controversy of Tall Skinny Papa,

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Rosetta resolved to stick with the songs she knew best -

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gospel songs, while giving them her unique, up-beat interpretation.

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# Reaching down that lonesome road

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# Look down that lonesome road

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# Before you travel on... #

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She had hit the big time.

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Her loyal followers

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back in the church got over the shock

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and stayed with her, while she gained new fans

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who just loved her music.

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It was not an easy trick to pull off, but somehow she did it.

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She could go there, and come back anytime she wanted to because people loved her.

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And they loved her, no matter what she sang. They loved her.

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# Look down that lonesome road

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# Before you travel on. #

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By the age of 25,

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Rosetta was rated among the finest popular musicians of the day.

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Here she is jamming with Duke Ellington at the piano

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and Cab Calloway on the right.

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# I can't sit down Because I just got to heaven

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# And I can't sit down... #

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In less than five years she had established herself

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in a tough, male dominated industry...

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singing the songs she chose to sing, in her own distinctive way.

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# Who's that yonder Dressed in white...? #

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She was rich, she was famous and she was loved by her fans.

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She was gospel's first superstar.

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She used to sing this song called The Fishes And Three Loaves Of Bread,

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and, anywhere you went in the south,

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it was on the radio. That was a big hit.

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Throughout the 40s, she spent much of her time on the road,

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playing to packed houses,

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accompanied by different gospel quartets.

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GOSPEL SINGING

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# Some day they'll see the Lord passing along... #

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The Dixie Hummingbirds started with Sister Rosetta in the 40s.

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They never made records together but they toured.

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Sister Rosetta was always the headliner, because it was her show

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and she had the choice of who she wanted to go out with her.

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'And for many years she chose the Dixie Hummingbirds.

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'It was a very good mix.

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'People enjoyed the styles, because her style was kind of firey with the guitar and the Hummingbirds would

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'come out and they would jump down in the audience

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'and start singing and really relating to the people.

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'So it was a good mix and promoters loved it, because it always filled houses.'

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Sometimes we'd do things we'd never done, just playing around with it

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until we said "That sounds good. Let's try that again".

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And that's the way we created a lot of stuff.

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# I'm holding up the Bloodstained banner for my Lord

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In a highly segregated society,

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black and white musicians performing together was taboo.

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However, Rosetta was happy to defy convention.

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'She was more or less a pioneer in asking us to perform with her.'

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She called us her "Four little white babies"

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and I thought it was so cute that she referred to us in that way.

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That was something I'll never forget.

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And we just loved to sing with her because when she started snapping

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her finger, man, and started singing on a tune you couldn't help but sing.

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# I'm going up to heaven

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# Oh, Lord, to get my reward Ooooh

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# Well, I'm working on the building... #

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'I know the first time we worked with her, they booked us'

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and we went to the stage door and some man came to the door

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and one of us said, "We're The Jordanaires", and he said

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"You're The Jordanaires?!

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"Well, this is going to be a surprise to our audience!"

0:24:150:24:19

Sister Rosetta didn't tell them that we were white.

0:24:200:24:23

She booked us, but she didn't tell them we were white.

0:24:250:24:28

And when we first went out on stage, they didn't really know how to take us.

0:24:280:24:34

Then we started singing Working On The Building.

0:24:340:24:37

'From then on in, we were in.'

0:24:370:24:38

# I'm going up to heaven To get my reward

0:24:390:24:41

# My reward! #

0:24:410:24:44

# Listen everybody to the precious words

0:24:470:24:49

# I'm gonna do some chirpin' And I ain't no bird! #

0:24:490:24:53

Throughout World War II, America's segregated black soldiers

0:24:550:24:59

not only adored Rosetta, but could claim her as one of their own.

0:24:590:25:05

Now we want you all cats to brush up your fur and be seated while we dish

0:25:050:25:09

out a "diddle-a-ding-di-ow-dowtie!"

0:25:090:25:11

And here's a girl who's gonna do the chirping for you - Sister Rosetta Tharpe!

0:25:110:25:15

Sister Tharpe, say hello to Joel way, way out there.

0:25:210:25:25

Hello, Joel, way, way out there.

0:25:250:25:28

-What are you going to sing, Sister?

-Down By The Riverside.

0:25:280:25:31

No films of Rosetta performing traditional gospel songs

0:25:390:25:42

during the '40s exist today,

0:25:420:25:44

but this 60s television recording captures the powerful stage presence

0:25:440:25:49

and unique guitar style that she'd developed back in her hay-day.

0:25:490:25:54

-# Down by the riverside

-To study war no more... #'

0:25:540:26:00

Everything she'd learned from her mother, everything she'd learned

0:26:000:26:04

growing up in the Sanctified Church had stayed with her.

0:26:040:26:08

'She was mesmerising!'

0:26:080:26:10

-# To study

-War no more

0:26:150:26:18

# Yeah... #

0:26:180:26:20

My sister and I thought she was the greatest.

0:26:200:26:23

We'd never met a popular singer, only gospel singers.

0:26:230:26:25

When we saw Rosetta Tharpe playing the guitar and singing

0:26:250:26:29

we thought that was the greatest thing we'd ever seen in our lives.

0:26:290:26:32

-# Well, well, well

-Study war no more

0:26:320:26:34

# No, no, no, no, no Study war no more... #

0:26:340:26:38

'The audiences that Sister Rosetta performed in front of were average people.

0:26:400:26:45

'They were people who worked, people trying to better themselves,'

0:26:450:26:51

and this music was their inspiration.

0:26:510:26:55

So when it came to a show that brought in people like Rosetta Tharpe,

0:26:550:27:00

there were lines three or four times around the block.

0:27:000:27:05

Just to call her name, people would go crazy.

0:27:090:27:14

The people just really loved her.

0:27:150:27:17

All she had to do was walk out on stage and they knew they were going to get a good performance.

0:27:170:27:21

'Before she left there, the public was part of her

0:27:230:27:27

'and she was part of the public, and it was like family.'

0:27:270:27:31

Rosetta had a one on one with everybody.

0:27:370:27:40

There could be 800, 900, 1,000 people,

0:27:400:27:44

but she had a one on one with you

0:27:440:27:47

because she could make that music and make that guitar talk just like

0:27:470:27:53

you were there with her, like you helped to write the song.

0:27:530:27:55

# I'm gonna meet All of my brethren

0:27:570:27:59

# Down by the riverside

0:27:590:28:02

-# Don't you know?

-Down by the riverside

0:28:020:28:04

# Down by the riverside

0:28:040:28:07

# I'm gonna meet all of my brethren

0:28:070:28:09

-# Down by the riverside

-# Yeah Yeah

0:28:090:28:15

# I ain't gonna study Thank God not gonna study

0:28:150:28:19

# Don't you know I'll not study

0:28:190:28:22

# Study war no more

0:28:220:28:24

# Hey Well, well

0:28:240:28:29

# No, no, no, no Study war no more. #

0:28:290:28:36

The biggest hit in Rosetta's entire career was Strange Things Happening Every Day,

0:28:470:28:52

a song that reflected some of the stark contradictions of the times.

0:28:520:28:57

# Oh we hear church people sing

0:28:570:29:00

# They are in this holy way

0:29:000:29:03

# There are strange things happening every day... #

0:29:030:29:08

It was recorded at the end of the war, when prosperity and

0:29:080:29:11

freedom were being proclaimed as the right of all Americans.

0:29:110:29:17

The song expressed some of the sad ironies she was experiencing on the road.

0:29:170:29:22

She was a star, but she was also black.

0:29:220:29:26

-# Every day

-Every day

0:29:260:29:28

# There are strange things... #

0:29:280:29:32

Sister Rosetta had a bus. She was the first person that

0:29:320:29:35

ever had a bus with her name on the side of it that I knew.

0:29:350:29:38

The back section was beds to sleep in,

0:29:380:29:42

and that was something that I thought was very unusual.

0:29:420:29:47

We couldn't stay in some hotels.

0:29:500:29:52

We had to sleep on the bus so the bus was really a good idea.

0:29:520:29:58

Being on the road with Sister Rosetta was very exciting

0:30:010:30:06

because sometimes we met opposition

0:30:060:30:12

and sometimes we met gladness.

0:30:120:30:16

Food and hotels, restaurants, all of this, they were all the same.

0:30:230:30:28

Water fountains, bathrooms,

0:30:280:30:31

everything was segregated.

0:30:310:30:33

They had to, as my father used to say, make do.

0:30:330:30:37

# Jesus is the holy light Turning darkness into light... #

0:30:390:30:44

We would go in and eat and we knew that she didn't have food on the bus.

0:30:440:30:49

Maybe she had crackers or cheese or

0:30:490:30:52

peanut butter, something like that,

0:30:520:30:55

but we would take what we ordered, we would get her the same thing

0:30:550:31:02

and take it to her.

0:31:020:31:04

-# Oh, every day

-Every day

0:31:040:31:08

# Yes, every day... #

0:31:080:31:09

Sometimes we found someone that took a chance

0:31:090:31:13

and say, "Come around to the back door,"

0:31:130:31:16

and they would serve us,

0:31:160:31:20

but we had to bring it back to the bus still. We couldn't eat it there.

0:31:200:31:26

-# Up above my head

-Up above my head

0:31:320:31:35

-# I hear music in the air

-I hear music in the air

0:31:350:31:38

# Now, up above my head... #

0:31:380:31:41

By the age of 30, Rosetta had survived two brief

0:31:410:31:44

and unhappy marriages, and had had numerous affairs with men and women.

0:31:440:31:49

The only constant person in her life was still her mother, Katie Bell.

0:31:490:31:55

However, in the spring of 1946

0:31:550:31:58

she encountered a young singer called Marie Knight.

0:31:580:32:01

She was so impressed by her, she suggested they team up.

0:32:010:32:05

Together they recorded a hugely popular version

0:32:050:32:09

of the gospel classic Up Above My Head.

0:32:090:32:11

BOTH: # I really do believe Yes, I really do believe

0:32:140:32:17

# There's a heaven somewhere Heaven somewhere... #

0:32:170:32:20

One of the things that made Marie and Rosetta so special as performers

0:32:200:32:24

was that they were two women who could go on the road

0:32:240:32:27

without any accompaniment but themselves.

0:32:270:32:31

Marie was a piano player and percussion player.

0:32:310:32:34

Rosetta performed on the piano as well as the guitar,

0:32:340:32:38

and so the two of them together had their entire band with them.

0:32:380:32:41

-# Up above my head

-Up above my head

0:32:430:32:46

-# I hear music in the air

-I hear music in the air

0:32:460:32:49

-# Up above my head

-Up above my head

0:32:490:32:52

-# I hear music in the air

-I hear trouble in the air

0:32:520:32:55

-# Up above my head

-He-he-head

0:32:550:32:58

-# I hear music in the air

-Whoa-oh-oh oh-oh-oh-oh-oh

0:32:580:33:01

BOTH: # And I really do believe Yes, I really believe

0:33:010:33:04

# There's a heaven somewhere... #

0:33:040:33:06

Marie Knight and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were a perfect pair.

0:33:060:33:10

The music was so wonderful that they generated together,

0:33:100:33:16

they were so unified on the stage.

0:33:160:33:19

Together they could rock the house.

0:33:190:33:21

Back then, two women on the road together

0:33:210:33:24

without any men to accompany them was not only novel but pretty risky.

0:33:240:33:29

But it was a risk that Rosetta was prepared to take.

0:33:290:33:32

They were lovers, at least according to

0:33:340:33:37

many, many of their friends at the time.

0:33:370:33:41

Within certain circles they could probably be

0:33:410:33:43

a little bit open about it, but within the wider world

0:33:430:33:46

that would have ruined careers, it would have ruined reputations.

0:33:460:33:50

I think it was an open secret in the entertainment worlds

0:33:500:33:53

in which they moved.

0:33:530:33:54

In 1950, while Rosetta and Marie were performing in California,

0:33:570:34:02

Marie's mother and two small children were killed in a fire.

0:34:020:34:06

Traumatised by the loss, Marie drifted away,

0:34:060:34:09

leaving Rosetta to carry on alone.

0:34:090:34:12

Their dream of independence together was over.

0:34:120:34:16

MUSIC: Wagner's Bridal Chorus

0:34:210:34:26

Less than a year after breaking up with Marie,

0:34:260:34:29

Rosetta took the most outrageous decision of her life

0:34:290:34:32

when two concert promoters came up with an audacious publicity stunt.

0:34:320:34:37

Their plan was to stage Rosetta's third wedding

0:34:370:34:39

in Washington's huge Griffith Stadium.

0:34:390:34:44

They would sell tickets to her fans and the recording rights to Decca.

0:34:440:34:49

Rosetta agreed to go along with the plan,

0:34:490:34:52

but there was just one problem - she had no-one in mind to marry.

0:34:520:34:57

But just weeks before the big day, she found Russell Morrison,

0:34:570:35:01

a minor player in the music industry

0:35:010:35:04

who offered to be both her third husband and her manager.

0:35:040:35:08

Tell the truth, I was surprised when she said she was getting married...

0:35:080:35:14

..and Russell was going to be the groom.

0:35:150:35:18

So she records her wedding ceremony

0:35:200:35:25

and the concert that follows it in 1951.

0:35:250:35:28

25,000 people come out

0:35:280:35:30

and pay admission prices to attend her wedding.

0:35:300:35:33

They bring wedding gifts for her, they bring crystal,

0:35:330:35:36

they bring dishes for her.

0:35:360:35:40

Someone even buys her a television set.

0:35:400:35:42

It's a total show-biz move, and at the same time,

0:35:420:35:46

it's a wedding ceremony conducted by a minister, a real wedding ceremony.

0:35:460:35:52

Rosetta was standing on the pitcher's mound

0:36:010:36:04

and they had everybody around her,

0:36:040:36:06

and all of the matrons of honour and all these people who were

0:36:060:36:09

probably who were probably folks that the promoters got together.

0:36:090:36:12

But they were all there, and it was just a wonderful, wonderful show.

0:36:120:36:18

-ORIGINAL RECORDING:

-I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome you

0:36:180:36:22

to Griffith Stadium where you are about to be guests

0:36:220:36:25

at the wedding of Sister Rosetta Tharpe,

0:36:250:36:27

at which there will be a great spiritual concert

0:36:270:36:30

followed by fireworks.

0:36:300:36:31

And it was nice to see that a lot of her friends had stuck with her

0:36:310:36:34

and were part of the wedding party.

0:36:340:36:36

Lucky Millinder was there, Marie Knight is there

0:36:360:36:39

and The Rosettes are there.

0:36:390:36:41

That stadium was packed.

0:36:440:36:47

It was packed.

0:36:490:36:52

I don't see how they could get anybody else in.

0:36:520:36:55

It was like a circus.

0:36:550:36:58

-ORIGINAL RECORDING:

-Rosetta, will you have this man to be thy wedded husband?

0:37:030:37:07

To live together after God's ordinance

0:37:070:37:09

in the holy state of matrimony?

0:37:090:37:11

It resonated throughout the entire country.

0:37:120:37:16

It was in newspapers, people talked about it.

0:37:160:37:20

My parents were so excited about it.

0:37:200:37:22

For a month in my house before that wedding was just crazy.

0:37:220:37:26

Take him by his right hand, Rosetta.

0:37:290:37:31

Hold it.

0:37:310:37:33

-I, Rosetta...

-I, Rosetta...

0:37:340:37:37

-Take thee, Russell...

-Take thee, Russell...

0:37:370:37:40

It was like she was Cinderella, you know,

0:37:400:37:46

and Russell was Prince Charming.

0:37:460:37:49

It was a storybook thing.

0:37:490:37:51

..that they are man and wife.

0:37:510:37:55

Kiss the bride.

0:37:550:37:57

Man and wife.

0:37:570:37:59

I didn't go to Sister's wedding to Russell.

0:38:040:38:07

I just figured it was another something

0:38:070:38:10

that she had gotten herself into.

0:38:100:38:13

After meeting Russell, I figured he just wanted easy living.

0:38:130:38:19

I said to myself, "Oh, my goodness, she is doing it again."

0:38:190:38:25

-# Don't you know, he's so

-So high you can't get over him

0:38:260:38:29

-# So low

-So low you can't get under him

0:38:290:38:32

-# So high

-So high you can't get... #

0:38:320:38:34

Sadly, the misgivings shared by Rosetta's friends

0:38:340:38:37

proved all too accurate.

0:38:370:38:38

While the wedding did boost her record sales briefly,

0:38:380:38:42

Russell the manager was out of his depth.

0:38:420:38:44

Russell just, like a cool breeze, just came right in,

0:38:480:38:54

took over.

0:38:540:38:56

He wasn't really a manager.

0:38:580:39:00

He THOUGHT he was a manager.

0:39:000:39:02

Of course, so many times when they think they are,

0:39:020:39:05

they aren't, and that's bad.

0:39:050:39:08

It was very clear that he was living off her talent

0:39:080:39:13

and it was very clear that he was two-timing her.

0:39:130:39:16

Many people, especially people close to her like Marie Knight,

0:39:170:39:23

were furious with him.

0:39:230:39:25

In spite of all the criticism,

0:39:270:39:29

Rosetta remained married to Russell for the next 22 years.

0:39:290:39:33

Meanwhile, back in the Mississippi Delta of Rosetta's childhood,

0:39:380:39:43

young white musicians were just beginning to discover

0:39:430:39:46

the raw energy and complex rhythms of African American gospel.

0:39:460:39:50

There was a hip thing happening in Memphis at that time.

0:39:500:39:53

There was a little church,

0:39:530:39:56

and it was a cool thing to do on Sunday nights only,

0:39:560:39:59

you would go there,

0:39:590:40:01

and there would be Elvis and some of the other guys from the area.

0:40:010:40:04

It was unusual, because back in those days

0:40:040:40:07

white people had to sit in the back.

0:40:070:40:10

It was roped off. We would sit back there

0:40:100:40:13

and watch these black spiritual singers sing on Sunday night.

0:40:130:40:17

Of course, this was the music that Sister Rosetta had brought out of

0:40:260:40:30

the church and into the wider world nearly 20 years earlier.

0:40:300:40:33

The thing that gospel spiritual music brought

0:40:350:40:38

to popular music was feeling.

0:40:380:40:40

Gospel spiritual music put the guts and the feeling

0:40:400:40:45

and the real soul into it.

0:40:450:40:47

People like Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and

0:40:470:40:52

Carl Perkins and those guys, Buddy Holly if you will,

0:40:520:40:55

they saw that and they adapted to that,

0:40:550:40:58

and that, really, was the essence of rock and roll.

0:40:580:41:02

Thinking about it,

0:41:100:41:11

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she had this great feeling,

0:41:110:41:15

and that is what Elvis was looking for - feeling -

0:41:150:41:18

because that is where it all came from.

0:41:180:41:20

She gave a lot people ideas about how to perform.

0:41:200:41:24

The way she performed a song, the way she picked a song,

0:41:240:41:28

the way she presented it, was an inspiration

0:41:280:41:32

to anybody who stood around and watched her,

0:41:320:41:34

and they all watched her.

0:41:340:41:36

Let's do that again!

0:41:370:41:38

She had a major impact on artists like Elvis Presley.

0:41:570:41:59

When you see Elvis Presley singing early songs in his career,

0:41:590:42:03

I think if you imagine that he is channelling Rosetta Tharpe.

0:42:030:42:07

It's not an image that I think we are used to thinking about

0:42:070:42:10

in rock and roll history.

0:42:100:42:11

We don't think of about the black woman behind the young white man.

0:42:110:42:15

At this point, a middle-aged black woman behind a young white man.

0:42:150:42:19

All the kids who grew up in the '40s and '50s knew of her as a superstar.

0:42:200:42:26

That was the singing that all these fellows had in their ears.

0:42:260:42:31

The rhythm they heard, the instrumentation they heard

0:42:310:42:34

would have been the sanctified piano and the kind of guitar

0:42:340:42:38

that they knew from Rosetta's records.

0:42:380:42:41

So, I think it is very fair to say that there's a bit of her

0:42:410:42:45

snuck up in all of rock and roll.

0:42:450:42:49

# Up above my head

0:42:490:42:52

# Music in the air... #

0:42:520:42:55

By the late '50s, rock and roll was here to stay.

0:43:120:43:15

Its idols were young, white men,

0:43:150:43:18

not middle-aged black women. Rosetta, it seemed,

0:43:180:43:22

was on her way out, and the bookings were drying up fast.

0:43:220:43:26

She and Russell, along with her aging mother, were forced to move

0:43:260:43:30

into this small row house in the city of Philadelphia.

0:43:300:43:33

The reason Rosetta's career went south,

0:43:380:43:40

very simply is that because Rosetta didn't keep up with the times.

0:43:400:43:44

Rosetta was still singing, in 1954, '55,

0:43:440:43:49

the songs she had recorded in 1938.

0:43:490:43:52

In fact, it was remarkable that she kept any career going

0:43:520:43:56

when she had really become, essentially, an oldie's act.

0:43:560:43:59

Then, in 1957, Rosetta got a call from one of her most devoted fans -

0:44:030:44:09

a white musician in Britain.

0:44:090:44:11

Chris Barber, the popular Dixieland-style jazz trombonist,

0:44:160:44:20

booked her to go on tour with him and his band for a month.

0:44:200:44:25

We got our agent to contact her somehow.

0:44:250:44:28

We actually paid her to come to Britain. It was so simple.

0:44:280:44:32

It was marvellous working with her. She was unbelievably good.

0:44:320:44:37

We learnt, as we thought we would, an enormous amount

0:44:370:44:40

from even the first day with her, never mind the whole month's tour.

0:44:400:44:44

Basically speaking,

0:45:010:45:03

her guitar by itself was as loud as my entire band.

0:45:030:45:06

It didn't bother anybody.

0:45:060:45:08

It was beautiful music. It was loud. Didn't matter.

0:45:080:45:11

It was enthralling, totally enthralling.

0:45:110:45:13

Everything she did was totally enthralling and totally convincing.

0:45:130:45:17

# This train is a clean train, this train

0:45:170:45:22

# I said this train is a clean train, yes, this train

0:45:220:45:28

# You know this train is a clean train

0:45:280:45:31

# Everybody ride it in his name

0:45:310:45:34

# This train is a clean train, this train... #

0:45:340:45:38

Booked as little more than a supporting novelty act,

0:45:410:45:45

Sister Rosetta stole the show.

0:45:450:45:47

Until now British audiences had only seen white imitations

0:45:490:45:53

of blues and gospel, but here, on stage for the very first time,

0:45:530:45:59

was the real thing.

0:45:590:46:00

Her new-found popularity quickly caught the attention

0:46:040:46:07

of bookers and promoters all across Europe.

0:46:070:46:10

Sister Rosetta was a star reborn, discovering new fans.

0:46:100:46:15

By the early '60s, her influence was continuing to spread

0:46:310:46:35

as yet another generation fell under her spell.

0:46:350:46:38

Here is a recording of Bob Dylan speaking about Rosetta on the radio.

0:46:440:46:48

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain.

0:46:480:46:52

She was a big, good-looking woman, and divine,

0:46:520:46:55

not to mention sublime and splendid.

0:46:550:46:58

She was a powerful force of nature,

0:46:580:47:00

a guitar-playing, singing evangelist.

0:47:000:47:03

# ..is a clean train Everybody ride it if you can... #

0:47:030:47:09

You know, she travelled to England with Muddy Waters and a whole bunch

0:47:090:47:13

of other blues performers in the early '60s, and I'm sure

0:47:130:47:16

there are a lot of young English guys

0:47:160:47:19

who picked up an electric guitar after getting a look at her.

0:47:190:47:22

# ..is standing in the station This train is waiting on all of you

0:47:220:47:27

# Come on, then, let's go... #

0:47:270:47:29

In the summer of 1964, Rosetta was booked by Granada Television

0:47:420:47:46

to perform in a folk, blues and gospel special.

0:47:460:47:49

The musicians were American, the audience English students,

0:47:520:47:56

the venue a disused railway station - Chorlton-cum-Hardy,

0:47:560:48:00

just outside Manchester.

0:48:000:48:02

The Manchester gig was a curiosity in the middle of the tour for us.

0:48:040:48:09

It was kind of bizarre. But, you know, we were all new to England,

0:48:090:48:13

and we were aware of all this interest in blues and gospel.

0:48:130:48:16

We all thought it was strange,

0:48:190:48:23

the setup with the audience on one platform

0:48:230:48:25

and the musicians on the other.

0:48:250:48:27

And she rose to the occasion.

0:48:350:48:38

She loved the drama of the situation,

0:48:380:48:41

trying to bridge that gap between the platforms,

0:48:410:48:46

sell the whole thing across the track to the audience.

0:48:460:48:51

By now Rosetta was 49 years old

0:48:550:48:57

and she had been on the road for more than 40 of those years.

0:48:570:49:01

But even in cold, wet and windy England, the magic was still there.

0:49:010:49:07

The inimitable Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

0:49:070:49:11

Oh, the sweet horsey. Oh, the sweet horsey.

0:49:190:49:22

Oh.

0:49:220:49:23

This is the wonderfullest time of my life.

0:49:230:49:26

And the people are so sweet to stay here.

0:49:260:49:28

-Oh, ain't they sweet?

-And I'm coming over!

-Yes!

0:49:280:49:32

Let me tell you what...

0:49:320:49:34

Oh, yeah!

0:49:370:49:38

# Didn't it rain, children?

0:50:040:50:08

# Rain, oh, yes

0:50:080:50:10

# Didn't it? Yes Didn't it? You know it did

0:50:100:50:13

# Didn't it? Oh, oh, yes

0:50:130:50:17

# How it rained

0:50:170:50:19

# I said it rained, children

0:50:190:50:22

# Rained, oh, yes

0:50:230:50:25

# Didn't it? Yes Didn't it? You know it did

0:50:250:50:28

# Didn't it?

0:50:280:50:29

# Oh, my Lord, how it rained

0:50:290:50:33

# Somebody at the window Somebody at the door

0:50:580:51:01

# Some crying, "Brother Noah can't you take on more?"

0:51:010:51:04

# But, "No," he cried out "Uh-uh, my friends

0:51:040:51:06

# The angel's got the key and you can't get in"

0:51:060:51:09

# I know it rain, you know it rain

0:51:090:51:12

# Rain too long, all night long

0:51:120:51:15

# Rain all day, rain all night

0:51:150:51:18

# Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain

0:51:180:51:21

# Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain

0:51:210:51:23

# Rain, children

0:51:230:51:26

# Rain, oh, yes

0:51:260:51:29

# Didn't it? Yes, Didn't it? You know it did

0:51:290:51:31

# Didn't it?

0:51:310:51:33

# Oh, my Lord, how it rained! #

0:51:330:51:37

Sister Rosetta was a huge success on the tour.

0:51:480:51:53

She did great. Audiences loved her.

0:51:530:51:57

She was very happy, everybody was happy.

0:51:570:51:59

Oh, I love you so, my English friends,

0:52:040:52:08

forever and ever until I leave this world.

0:52:080:52:12

While Rosetta was away in Europe enjoying the upturn in her career,

0:52:170:52:21

back in Philadelphia, her mother was becoming increasingly frail.

0:52:210:52:27

In 1968, Katie Bell died.

0:52:270:52:31

For 53 years she had stuck close by her daughter

0:52:330:52:36

through good times and bad

0:52:360:52:38

as the one constant figure reminding Rosetta of her faith in God.

0:52:380:52:43

The loss took a heavy toll on Rosetta.

0:52:470:52:51

She became increasingly depressed,

0:52:510:52:53

and to make matters worse, she was diagnosed with diabetes.

0:52:530:52:57

I'm going to sing a song

0:52:590:53:02

that maybe you wouldn't understand it and maybe you do,

0:53:020:53:05

a song that I love so dearly,

0:53:050:53:08

and I have so many friends here in Copenhagen,

0:53:080:53:11

for many, many years I've been coming here,

0:53:110:53:14

and then some time, my friends...

0:53:140:53:16

Made in 1970 in Denmark,

0:53:160:53:18

this is the last known recording of Sister Rosetta performing.

0:53:180:53:22

Maybe you wouldn't understand that, but someone died

0:53:220:53:26

who they dearly love, and mine did too,

0:53:260:53:29

my mother died two years ago and left me alone.

0:53:290:53:34

But nevertheless, I have you.

0:53:340:53:36

I went to see her, and she had this black spot on her foot.

0:53:370:53:41

I said, "Sister, what is that?" and she said, "I don't know."

0:53:410:53:48

I said, "Sister, go see about that, please!"

0:53:480:53:51

That's going to happen.

0:53:520:53:53

But there is a divine power.

0:53:530:53:55

I believe it - I don't know about you, but I got to believe it,

0:53:550:53:59

because I was raised that way.

0:53:590:54:02

I sing this song.

0:54:020:54:04

# Because Lord

0:54:060:54:08

# Take my hand

0:54:110:54:13

# Lead me on

0:54:160:54:22

# And let me stand

0:54:220:54:24

# I'm tired and I've worked so hard

0:54:270:54:31

# And I'm weak

0:54:320:54:34

# My body is worn

0:54:360:54:39

# Whoa, yes

0:54:410:54:44

# But I got to go anyhow

0:54:440:54:46

# Through the storm... #

0:54:460:54:49

She wouldn't listen to anybody.

0:54:490:54:52

So, the next thing,

0:54:520:54:55

foot started turning black.

0:54:550:54:57

Then she did have to go to the doctor,

0:54:570:54:59

then they found out they had to cut her leg off.

0:54:590:55:02

# ..just the same... #

0:55:020:55:06

Sometimes she would call me and say,

0:55:060:55:08

"Sister, please come, please come to see me,"

0:55:080:55:11

and I would say, "All right, I'm coming."

0:55:110:55:15

But the last few months I didn't go, because Russell was acting like

0:55:150:55:21

he didn't want nobody taking over from him.

0:55:210:55:23

When I went over to see Aunt Sis,

0:55:230:55:25

she was in the bed and she would say, "Where's Russell?"

0:55:250:55:30

I'd say, "Downstairs," and she would say,

0:55:300:55:32

"He's asking you about shows, right?"

0:55:320:55:35

and I'd say "No, he didn't say anything!"

0:55:350:55:37

"Yes, he is! He wants to know if I'm going back,"

0:55:370:55:40

she said, "And I'm going back,

0:55:400:55:42

"but I'm not going to tell anybody when I'm coming back.

0:55:420:55:45

"But I am coming back." But she never did.

0:55:450:55:48

# My body

0:55:480:55:50

# Is all

0:55:540:55:58

# Suffering in pain

0:55:580:56:01

# Whoa, yes

0:56:020:56:05

# I got no-one to call on

0:56:050:56:08

# Hear my cry

0:56:080:56:14

# Hear my call

0:56:140:56:16

# Please, hold my hand

0:56:180:56:22

# Lest I fall

0:56:230:56:26

# Hmmm

0:56:260:56:29

# Take my hand

0:56:290:56:31

# Whoa!

0:56:310:56:34

# Precious Lord

0:56:340:56:36

# Lead me on... #

0:56:380:56:40

Rosetta's funeral was very quiet.

0:56:400:56:42

It wasn't any big thing.

0:56:420:56:45

It was no elaborate funeral, I can tell you that.

0:56:450:56:48

The church was half-full,

0:56:480:56:51

and Rosetta looked the best I had seen her in years.

0:56:510:56:57

Marie Knight, her old partner, she made Rosetta up.

0:56:570:57:02

She took care of her coiffure, of her makeup,

0:57:020:57:07

of how the fabrics looked and made her as glamorous as possible.

0:57:070:57:11

She looked a star.

0:57:110:57:13

I think I said, "She would sing until you cried,

0:57:170:57:21

"and then she would sing until you danced for joy.

0:57:210:57:26

"She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing."

0:57:260:57:30

# Down at the river

0:57:300:57:35

# Oh, stinging

0:57:350:57:38

# Cut my feet

0:57:410:57:43

# Please, hold my trembling hand

0:57:430:57:47

# Hmmm

0:57:470:57:51

# And take my hand

0:57:510:57:53

# Oh, precious Lord

0:57:530:57:58

# Lead

0:57:590:58:05

# Me on. #

0:58:050:58:09

APPLAUSE

0:58:170:58:20

In 2008, some 35 years after Rosetta's death,

0:58:310:58:35

the Governor of Pennsylvania declared

0:58:350:58:38

that henceforth the 11th January

0:58:380:58:41

will be known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.

0:58:410:58:45

-# Up above my head

-Up above my head

0:58:520:58:55

-# I hear music in the air

-I hear music in the air

0:58:550:58:58

-# Now, up above my head

-Up above my head

0:58:580:59:01

-# You know I hear music in the air

-I hear music in the air

0:59:010:59:04

-# Up above my head

-Up above my head

0:59:040:59:07

-# I hear music in the air

-I hear music in the air

0:59:070:59:10

-# And I really do believe

-And I really do believe

0:59:100:59:13

BOTH: # There's a heaven somewhere Heaven somewhere. #

0:59:130:59:16

During the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe played a highly significant role in the creation of rock & roll, inspiring musicians like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. She may not be a household name, but this flamboyant African-American gospel singing superstar, with her spectacular virtuosity on the newly-electrified guitar, was one of the most influential popular musicians of the 20th century.

Tharpe was born in 1915, close to the Mississippi in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six she was taken by her evangelist mother Katie Bell to Chicago to join Roberts Temple, Church of God in Christ, where she developed her distinctive style of singing and guitar playing. At the age of 23 she left the church and went to New York to join the world of show business, signing with Decca Records. For the following 30 years she performed extensively to packed houses in the USA and subsequently Europe, before her death in 1973.

In 2008 the state governor of Pennsylvania declared that henceforth January 11th will be Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in recognition of her remarkable musical legacy.