Spotlight on The King #1: How Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Influenced Elvis' Music
On a regular basis EIN examines a new release or issue in the Elvis
world. In this edition we shine our spotlight on:
Influences On A Legend – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
southern states of America are a melting pot of fiercely emotive
musical genres from the raw blues belters on Beale Street and in
New Orleans to energetic black spirituals and white gospel songs
and the pure country and western sounds of Nashville. In the 1940s
and 1950s these influences would help shape the musical style of
the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley. While white
gospel singers influenced Elvis’s ballad style, black spiritual
singers were a major influence on his rock and roll style replete
of those seminal black influences on the young Elvis was Sister
Rosetta Tharpe. Each day Elvis would rush home from school in Tupelo
to listen to her and other singers on WELO’s daily half hour of
black gospel. According to his school friend, Billy Welch, Elvis
would never miss a show. The influence was undoubtedly fueled by
Elvis’s parents with their strong religious beliefs. By the time
he was 9 years old, Elvis, Gladys and Vernon were a popular singing
trio, appearing at local churches and revivals. Their delivery of
what was known as country gospel had to have been of seminal importance
to the young Elvis in fashioning his own unique musical style.
a clue to the musical personality that was Rosetta Tharpe, Ken Romanowski
described her as "Flamboyant, histrionic, magnetic and precocious...".
Tharpe and Elvis shared a lot in common. Both were musical innovators
who combined diverse musical genres to form a hybrid sound. In the
case of Sister Tharpe she blended ballsy, black spirituals with
white big band jazz. In Elvis’ case, he blended white country and
gospel with black rhythm and blues.
Rosetta Tharpe angered her church leaders by "putting too much motion
as well as emotion into her singing", a criticism later to be widely
and loudly voiced at Elvis the Pelvis. While the young Elvis could
not have fully appreciated Tharpe’s stage presence and movements
from listening to the radio, the raw, ecstatic emotion of Tharpe’s
voice undoubtedly left its mark.
his excellent book ‘The Gospel Sound’, music historian Anthony Heilbut
notes that Tharpe demonstrated the connections among all black musical
forms by shifting from sacred to profane with a mere change in lyrics.
a not too dissimilar way to Elvis giving 1950s youth their own musical
form, Rosetta Tharpe brought her brand of blended black gospel music
to a mass audience and critical acclaim on Broadway singing with
Cab Calloway and his Orchestra and Lucky Millander’s band at venues
such as The Cotton Club. She was an integral part of the historic
Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1938. For
the first time black gospel was brought to a white audience.
Elvis, her music knew no boundaries and she perfected her own style
of bending notes and phrasing words. She entered the stage with
brightly dyed flame-red hair and her guitar slung over her shoulder.
Her typical pose was standing guitar in hand not unlike Elvis would
do in the 1950s. Rosetta’s different versions of the same song could
range from big band accompaniment to boogie woogie, country style
or a church choir backing.
a child Rosetta accompanied her mother, travelling evangelist Katie
Bell Nubin, and was described as tearing up the churches with songs
such as I Looked Down The Line and God Don’t Like It. By the age
of six she had mastered the guitar. Later, as one of forerunners
of soul music’s ‘earth mamas’ (the big, statuesque black women with
big, belting contralto voices such as Mahalia Jackson and Etta James)
Rosetta tore up the clubs and churches often reducing her audience
and congregation "to an emotional pulp".
Tharpe’s records rose high on the race charts in America and influenced
not only Elvis but other rockers including Jerry Lee Lewis and his
hybrid of hillbilly, blues and gospel. As a recording artist she
shocked her more pious black listeners with songs such as I Want
A Tall Skinny Papa and delighted white listeners with Rock Me and
This Train. Parallels can be drawn with Elvis physically and lyrically
suggestive rendition of songs such as Shake, Rattle and Roll (in
which he essentially used Big Joe Turner’s version rather than the
softer lyric version sung by Bill Haley and the Comets), his rocking
delivery of Jailhouse Rock and his mainstream ‘balladeering’ style
on Love Me Tender.
fame resulted in a 1939 feature article by LIFE magazine in which
she was described as "moving the saints on Sunday and entertaining
the big spenders on Monday". Tharpe was also an impressive entrepreneur
- her 1951 wedding (her third marriage) to her manager Russell Morrison
was an event attended by 25,000 paying guests. "The wedding culminated
in a $5,000 fireworks display including a 20 foot representation
of her with her guitar".
1944 Rosetta recorded the first of several sessions with pianist
Sam Price. As noted by Ken Romanowski, Price’s combo was a rhythm
and blues band of the type which would soon replace the costly big
bands. Not surprisingly, the Price recordings put Rosetta once again
"at the cutting edge of popular black music".
was to record several songs sung by Tharpe. The most notable of
these were Up Above My Head, Just A Closer Walk With Thee (This Train) = 'My Babe' and Down
By The Riverside.
the 1950s Rosetta Tharpe’s star began to wane and in her place Mahalia
Jackson assumed the position as gospels biggest star. Following
a stroke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe died on October 9, 1973 at the age
The headstone erected on her grave decades after her death bears these words: “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.” - and more importantly she helped influence the young Elvis Presley - and so helped create the sound of rock’n’roll.
Rosetta Tharpe’s musical legacy is substantially preserved on CD
with numerous albums available. Her best works (although admittedly
missing Up Above My Head) are arguably available on the 2 volume
retrospective Sister Rosetta Tharpe Complete Recorded Works 1938
– 1941 and Sister Rosetta Tharpe Complete Recorded Works 1942 –1944,
released by Document Records (catalogue numbers DOCD-5334 and DOCD-5335
respectively). Both albums contain detailed liner notes and biography.
Elaine Dundy, Elvis and Gladys Anthony Geilbut, The Gospel Sound
Ken Romanowski, Liner Notes to Sister Rosetta Tharpe Complete Recorded
Works 1938-1944 Peter Whitmer, The Inner Elvis Barney Hoskins, From
A Whisper To A Scream
article was written by Nigel Patterson and first appeared in ‘Elvis
Monthly’ as part of the author’s fourteen part series, Influences
On A Legend. ©1998, 2002