Reviewed by Tony Cummings
Rosetta Nubin of the tiny hamlet Cotton Plant, Arkansas, became in the 1930s a guitar toting singing evangelist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and in doing so, sowed the seeds for Mary Mary, Sounds Of Blackness, Kirk Franklin and all the other crossover artists who have taken the message that Jesus saves out of the church and into the world of showbiz. This stunning four CD box set carefully documents Rosetta's musical evolution. Here her fiery mezzo-soprano with its emotive vibrato and dazzling blue notes is heard against her stunning guitar playing. To newcomers to the good sister's music, Rosetta's playing will be a revelation. For she was no mere strummer but a lady who belted out blues riffs like a sanctified Memphis Minnie. Just listen to the way she takes old standards like "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" and "Precious Lord Take My Hand" and transforms them into steel-bodied blues guitar virtuoso pieces. This set, offering every track the lady recorded for Decca Records between 1938 and 1949 is crammed full of delicious music. The first disc, 'Shout Sister Shout', kicks off with her debut, Thomas Dorsey's "Rock Me" but it's her version of "Denomination Blues", the classic by Washington Phillips (see CR70), re-titled "That's All", which really catches the ear. Right from the start Rosetta also occasionally recorded a non-gospel song, like "My Man And Me" but it is the rolling "This Train", which became her signature tune, which stands out. As the excellent sleevenotes by Joop Visser Raved, "Rosetta was more confident and made full use of her guitar, revealing the bluesy imprint that was to remain her imprint."
Disc two, 'Rock Me', features two more recordings of the Dorsey song, one (for a V-Disc) with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. Rosetta's frequent recordings with Millinder are an eye-opener. The band leader was hugely popular with the black public, cooking up a bluesy brew of big band music, part jazz, part blues and part the still emerging R&B, and amazingly the sister sounds completely at ease with a big band. In fact, it was her work with orchestras like Cab Calloway's at the legendary Cotton Club which had brought about the gospel singer's mainstream success. Catch the stunning electric guitar of Trevor Bacon on Rosetta's glorious version of "Trouble In Mind". Only the 1942 recording of the secular "I Wanna Tall Skinny Papa", with a dreadful shrill sound, fails to impress.
Disc three, 'Singing In My Soul', traces her career after Rosetta left Lucky Millinder's band in 1943. Rosetta was riding high and she made some fascinating recordings (in breach of a Musician's Union strike!). Two of her best tracks here are "God Don't Like It" and "What's The News", both warning against the dangers of alcoholic overindulgence - not the kind of material you could imagine her singing before her nightclub audiences. With musical tastes changing Rosetta went into the studio with the Sammy Price Trio, Rosetta's punchy guitar blending beautifully with Sam's rolling boogie piano. "Strange Things Happening Every Day" coupled with "Two Little Fishes And Five Loaves Of Bread" became a big hit in the Harlem Hit Parade (forerunner of the R&B chart).
Disc four, 'This Train', features Rosetta with the definitive version of the title track (a song which incidentally first turned me on to gospel when she sang it on an ATV blues and gospel documentary in the early '60s). The CD also features the first of her numerous duets with Marie Knight, the gospel matriarch who crossed over to blues and R&B in the '50s and '60s. There is much music here which is truly superlative and it's heartening to see that, after decades of neglect, the "original soul sister" is again in vogue. For truly Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a pioneering figure in gospel music history.
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