Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll, is still underappreciated in official histories and halls, but her influence on the early years of the genre is transparently clear especially in her live recordings. The interplay of gospel and rock ’n’ roll is often associated with Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, but Sister Rosetta is arguably more revolutionary because her religious fervor becomes more pronounced, and her performances more ferocious. Whereas Elvis translates gospel into something sexy, Sister Rosetta translates rock ’n’ roll into something holy.
Though Tharpe first achieved prominence as a jazz singer in the big band era, scoring hits with Tommy Dorsey’s and Duke Ellington’s bands, her mastery of guitar language and tonality flourished into a transcendent art. Here are seven of the most joyful, fearsome and beautiful live performances we can find by the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta made a splash at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1964 and the excellent recordings from the set have become canonic (as evidenced by all the Paste Cloud inclusions here). Here she puts this New Orleans standard into her own jazz-gospel language and you can hear her engaging the crowd into participation, making for a blissful live classic.
This video captures the brilliance of Sister Rosetta’s sense of joy in both performance and the gospel. We see the dancing, playful and celebratory side of a performer whose ability to convey sensation and emotion is the palpable testament to the faith she shares through her words.
Sister Rosetta is a master of many moods, but one of her best is the righteous rebuke. She layers a humorous energy into her vocal performance here, as she aggressively calls on people who, “don’t understand the good book right,” to show more respect. Tharpe played with many different jazz ensembles over the years and the instrumentation of this take perfectly mirrors her brassy and confrontational vocal tone. The interplay of her guitar with the trombone solo is a golden moment that transforms polyphony into conversation, modeling the “understanding” the lyrics call for.
The guitar-playing on “Down by the Riverside” foresees the vocalizing style that Jimi Hendrix would later employ mixed with a dizzyingly fast dance across the neck that reinforces her influence on early rock ’n’ roll luminaries like Chuck Berry (a video of this song from another performance even shows her doing the duck walk). A blistering solo precedes the ecstatic final verse, in which her voice embodies the same electric grit of her legendary strings (a tactic also employed in many hill country blues tunes). Her vocal and guitar performances are in continuous conversation through all her music, teasing the ear and mind of the listener and delivering sheer pleasure, too.
Sister Rosetta is known for the fiery character of her presence and playing, but this dynamic take is a slow burn with a clean-tone solo. Her dramatic, captivating performance is captured vividly in this video—recorded during her 1964 European tour—as it pulls into close focus on her face to show each smile, each rebuke, each grimace, each cue to the band. Indeed, she commands the crowd as much as she does the ensemble, and over 50 years later we find ourselves still hanging on every word and every note.
This video is special because it shows Sister Rosetta turning the unfortunate circumstances of a rainstorm to her advantage—bringing the song’s eternal message to the drenched audience before her with both humor and grace. Her guitar work on the tune shows off a bouncy twang, emphasizing the lightened mood she’s introduced to the wet surroundings.
This filmed performance pulls together all of the features of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s greatness as a performer and guitarist. Her mind-bending distorted guitar solo plays beautifully against and within the churchlike setting of the concert. Set in front of a large gospel choir, she delivers a searing solo that captures in one thrilling minute the genius of Sister Rosetta; she’s not just blending genres here, she’s taking rock ’n’ roll to church, showing that music itself is sacred and that it can shake the human spirit right out of it’s skeleton.