Genre: Music Bio
About: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the unsung, trailblazing, line-crossing woman musician who might’ve just possibly invented Rock ‘n’ Roll back in the 40’s.
Writer: Gayle F. Wald, an English teacher at George Washington University.
Status: I believe it’s available. But, you better snap the rights up quick!
“Say man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll.” I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s ... shakin’ man ... She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, “Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” —Jerry Lee Lewis
Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends -- Scriptshadow’s Sunday review of books, where we mush, gush and geek out about the books we soooo desperately wanna see turned into movies.
One of the few of my favorite things is a good rock ‘n’ roll flick. Maybe I’m the bastard love child of Lester Bangs and Pauline Kael, cause there’s nothing I love more then watching movies and listening to records. You put those two great things that taste great together and I’m in Nirvana, baby.
I was weaned watching A Hard Day's Night, The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba. Picked up the bass after catching Cotton Candy, Ron Howard’s cheesy, battle of the bands drama on the tube. Hell, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is up there on my top ten list of all-time favorite movies!
(Damn, Clint Howard is in two of the flicks on my list!!! How the hell did Clint Howard usurp John Cazale? Is he a great, unsung hero too?)
Now, I know music bios don’t always do boffo at the box-office. The Runaways was exactly no Ray. But, I doubt, even with Hollywood’s recent penny pinching, they’ll never completely stop making ‘em.
I’m still wishing and hoping for The Chet Baker Story to eventually hit the big screen. If not with DiCaprio, I’d settle for Josh Hartnett. And, of course there has to one day be an adaptation of Nick Tosche’s Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n‘ Roll. And, please, can someone please film Legs McNeil’s Please Kill me: The uncensored Oral History of Punk? I’d pay good money to see Elijah Wood as Iggy, damn it!
Okay, let’s dig out the real scratchy vinyl and get obsessively more obscure.
One of the greatest untold stories of rock is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel star who dared to crossover to what some considered a mighty ungodly road. I believe she’s the one that invented rock ‘n’ roll.
Never heard of her??? Stop reading right now and watch this link. If her guitar solo doesn’t send shivers down your spine, I suggest you get an adjustment from your chiropractor pronto.
It’s a sin that she’s been so forgotten. Without Sister Tharpe, there would be no Elvis, no Little Richard, no Jerry Lee Lewis, no Johnny Cash, no Etta James and no Bonny Raitt. Their way was graciously paved -- more like bulldozed and steamrolled -- by the good Sister.
Gayle Wald’s biography, Shout, Sister, Shout, pretty much provides the perfect blueprint for a great music biopic. What makes Tharpe’s story so compelling is that there wasn’t a barrier this woman didn’t have to cross. Her life boldly transcended the not-so-invisible lines of race, class, gender and religion.
Tharpe captivated both black and white audiences, spiritual and secular, in the North and in the South, in the US and abroad. Her trailblazing music crossed all boundaries. She graced many radically different stages, including The Grand Ole Opry, The Cotton Club, the integrated Café Society, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival (in a definitely unfolky mink coat).
If Dylan shocked the Folk Festival in 1965 by going “electric”, one must wonder how the small town, southern churches reacted when Rosetta did the same thing thirty years prior. She not only breached standards of holiness and respectability by singing blues and jazz in Sunday services (accompanying herself on a very loud, rocking Gibson) but also proudly shared her faith, singing hymns and spirituals in nightclubs and dance halls.
Sister Tharpe was ambitious, flamboyant and something of a diva. She lived just as loud and shocking as she played. She staged her third wedding as a stadium concert with 20,000 fans in attendance. It was one of the greatest publicity stunts ever staged as Rosetta signed the venue’s contract before even looking for a husband!
She was born dirt poor in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to an evangelizing Pentecostal (and perhaps never quite legally married) mother. Rosetta began performing at the age of four, billed as the “Singing and Guitar Playing Miracle”. Her mom used her little blessing to quickly move out of the tiny town and head for Chicago. The missionary opportunities would be far greater for her there. Just think how many sinners the big city had to offer!
Like most musicians raised in the church, it wasn’t an easy choice for Rosetta to pursue a worldly, musical path. It meant rejection from the very spiritual communities that nurtured her.
Everything about Tharpe was ahead of her time. Not just her music (how many women guitar players were there back then?), but in her personal life too. She spent most of her life on the road, made and lost fortunes, withstood failed marriages, wore pants before they were the norm, swore like a sailor and experimented in a little bisexuality from time to time.
She lived like a rock star years before the term even got coined!
If the characteristics of a good story are characters, goals, conflicts and obstacles, then come prepared, cause her career had a long laundry list of hurdles to overcome.
Her first marriage was to a preacher who ministered a little too intimately to the female members of his flock. His deceit would disintegrate her faith a bit, perhaps preparing her for a more secular career.
Her first hit, “Strange Things Happen Every Day” poked fun at church hypocrisy with a hip shaking, boogie woogie beat. It would go on to make the Billboard Top Ten. Many critics agree that “Strange Things” was the first rock ‘n’ roll recording, beating Roy brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by three years. Both Elvis and Jerry lee Lewis were huge fans.
When the famed Cotton Club offered her five hundred dollars a week to perform, she couldn’t resist the temptation to divorce the cheating preacher and take a bite out of the Big Apple. The club’s notorious segregated door policy, however, infuriated her. A necessary evil in launching her career.
In the late 40s, Rosetta would take on a little sister singing partner, Marie Knight, and tour the gospel circuit to sell out crowds. The superstar partnership, even under the watchful eye of Tharpe’s critical mother, would eventually turn romantic. It was a dirty, little secret that would have ended their careers right then and there.
Tharpe’s life story included a lot of fascinating co-stars: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Dorothy Dandridge, John Hammond and Muddy Waters. I love that Savoy Records, the leading label in the gospel field, was run by a nice Jewish fella from Newark, New Jersey.
Someone needs to finally pay respect to this musical pioneer and make this into movie! Queen Latfiah, do you have a production company???
What I learned: Hitchcock once said “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.” When writing a biopic, one can’t focus on the subject’s entire damned lifespan. What are the defining moments? Which boring bits need to be left out? I’m always amazed by the masters of the biopic, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They usually focus on one incredible incident to frame their stories. Luckily, with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, there are many incredible moments to choose from and a shocking deficiency of boring bits.
Read more from Michael Stark at his blog: http://www.michaelbstark.blogspot.com/