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Cotton pickers' daughter blazed new musical trail

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Child star. Gospel inspiration. Triple-threat performer. Blues pioneer. Crossover phenomenon. Guitar virtuoso. Race-barrier breaker. Rock 'n' roll trailblazer.

Each of the above would be an impressive thing for a musician to be. Rosetta Tharpe was all of them.

The remarkable life of this unique 20th-century talent is examined in the new American Masters profile Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, which airs Friday at 8:30 p.m. on Prairie Public TV. The hour-long film, directed by Mick Csáky and narrated by Pauline Black, offers a revealing portrait of a woman whose rise to musical stardom seems, in retrospect, to have been as inevitable as it was unlikely.

Born in 1915 to parents who picked cotton in Cotton Plant, Ark., Rosetta was immersed in music and religion from the moment she arrived in the world. Her father, sort of a shadowy figure in this story, is believed to have been a singer; her mother, Katie Bell, was an evangelist and "stomp-down Christian" for whom showmanship was an essential element in spreading the Lord's message.

In 1921, with six-year-old Rosetta in tow, Bell left her husband and Arkansas behind to become a travelling preacher; eventually, she arrived in Chicago and became part of the fast-growing Church of God in Christ, which melded energetic sermonizing with musical styles imported from the South.

Young Rosetta, who had been schooled in music and performing since before she could walk, became something of an attraction at church meetings, perched atop a piano, guitar in hand, belting out gospel favourites. By age 10, she was an all-purpose musician and, as one historian notes, "a phenomenal show-woman."

Throughout her teens, Rosetta travelled the country, becoming a huge celebrity in church circles. In 1934, when Rosetta was 19, mother Katie married her off to a preacher, Rev. Tommy Thorpe (her eventual last-name choice was misspelled), who turned out to be a cruel tyrant who saw his talented young bride as nothing more than a meal ticket for his ministry.

The couple split after four years; Rosetta, very much in demand, packed up her mother and headed to New York. Even against the bright lights of America's biggest city, Tharpe's talent shone, and before long she earned an invitation to perform at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club alongside the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

Much to the chagrin of her church-devoted followers, Tharpe dabbled briefly in secular songs, recording such suggestive hits as Rock Me and Tall Skinny Papa. Eventually, she returned to gospel material, but maintained the up-tempo style that would inspire many of rock's early pioneers.

By the time she was 25, Tharpe had achieved huge stardom on her own terms. Her personal life, however, remained a challenge -- by age 30, she had endured two brief but unhappy marriages as well as numerous affairs with men and women. It's a measure of her celebrity that in 1951, Tharpe's third wedding, largely a promoter's publicity stunt, took place in front of 25,000 people in Washington's Griffith Stadium baseball park.

By the late '50s, the style of music Tharpe had pioneered was being copied by young white artists in the southern U.S.

"When you see Elvis Presley singing songs early in his career, I think... he is channelling Rosetta," says Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald. "It's not an image we're used to thinking about when we think about rock 'n' roll history -- we don't think about the black woman behind the young white man."

What makes Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll compelling is the fact director Csáky had access to so many audio recordings and film clips. The music drives the film; Tharpe's contribution to the evolution of popular American music may be largely forgotten, but the samples of her work offered in this film leave no doubt that hers was a pivotal role in shaping the sound of the last half-century.

If you like rock 'n' roll, you'll love Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It's a simple as that. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2013 D3


Updated on Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 10:19 AM CST: replaces photo, adds fact box

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