Great Guitarists #11: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Great Guitarists

In this installment, a singer and guitar player who took the blues, folk and gospel and created what could arguably be considered the forerunner to rock’n’roll…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Born in 1915, Tharpe (born Rosetta Nubin) started playing guitar and singing in church at the young age of just four years old. Touring with an evangelical church troupe from the age of six, she settled in Chicago. Her stage name comes from her first marriage to preacher Thomas Tharpe at the age of 19; she carried on using the name Tharpe professionally after their divorce in 1984 , up until her death from a stroke in 1973 (during which time she remarried twice).

Tharpe is perhaps best remembered as a singer, with a loud clear singing style. But something about her singing, combined with her foot stomping and blues-tinged guitar picking – not to mention some cool lead lines – stirred the interest in many young listeners who would go on to be the next generation of musicians. Little Richard and Johnny Cash both called Tharpe their favourite singer, she is cited as a crucial influence to artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Meatloaf and Karen Carpenter. Tharpe’s appearance on a British TV special about the Blues and Gospel Caravan, a European tour of US musicians that also included Muddy Waters, Otis Span and Sonny Terry, amongst many others, brought her to the attention of British audiences, including future guitar superstars like Eric Clapton.

“Tharpe’s guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing that was a precursor of rock and roll”

Biography.com (‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe’, 2015)

Tharpe’s guitar playing is said to have directly influenced the vocals/guitar style of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – and if the first rock’n’rollers such as Berry, Presley and Richard call Tharpe an influence, she must the foundation of all that followed…

Tharpe’s career was curtailed by a stroke in 1970, and she died just three years later. Nowadays, her influence is often unfairly overlooked, and sometimes forgotten entirely. However, Tharpe played a crucial role in the history of American music of the 20th century, not to mention the birth of rock’n’roll. Furthermore, in this brilliant article by Erin White, Tharpe is hailed as a Queer Icon too, largely due to speculation over her affair with singer Marie Knight.

Here she is on a TV show in the mid-sixties, singing a gospel song with a gospel choir, but playing a slightly overdriven Gibson Les Paul Custom (although we know these as a Gibson SG nowadays) with it’s three humbuckers. She also pops in a blues-based solo in the middle!

When I think of three humbucker guitars, I recall Neil Young’s ‘Black Beauty’ Les Paul, or the rock band KISS. As for the SG guitar shape, Angus Young of AC/DC and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath are the first two players who spring to most people’s minds – not a lady in her fifties singing a combination of blues and gospel. It must be remembered that for many, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first black woman they’d ever seen playing an electric guitar, and she could play! But what else should we expect from the Tharpe – one of a small handful who can truly claim to be the start, or inspiration, of rock’n’roll?

Recommended listening

Tharpe’s 1944 single Strange Things Happening Every Day, is considered one of the first rock’n’roll singles, and is the first ever Gospel record to make it onto Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (now called their R&B chart). One her most acclaimed studio albums is Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956). This record marks the stylistic change, backed by New York session musicians, and is considered highly influential on later rock’n’roll artists.

With a career that took place from the 30’s to the early 70’s, it is sometimes best to seek out compilation albums in order to have all of Tharpe’s most well-known releases in one place. To that end, I would recommend Bring Back Those Happy Days: Greatest Hits and Selected Recordings (Jasmine, 2018), or the 4-CD set The Original Soul Sister (Proper, 2002).

As with each installment in the Great Guitarists series, I have only touched upon the surface of these influential players. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them, as well as recommendations on who should be featured (I have another four or five lined up already – I wonder if anyone can guess who is coming next?). Until next time…

Great Guitarists #10: Mary Osborne

Great Guitarists

In this, the tenth installment of my Great Guitarists series, I’m a little ashamed to say we have only looked at male guitar players so far. So, to round off my first ‘dectet’ of influential guitar players (and keeping in a jazz theme, like the previous installments), let me introduce to you Mary Osborne…

Picture Credit: Gretsch, 1959

Osborne was born into a musical family in North Dakota, 1921. Both her parents were musicians and her father’s barbershop was a known gathering place for local players. Already playing live by the time she was a teenager, Osborne was influenced by the playing of early jazz pioneers Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. However, it was Charlie Christian who first captivated her, and mentored her for a while, fine tuning her great sense of swing.

Osborne’s career ranged from trios (her own, and the Winifred McDonnell Trio near the start of her professional career), as well as some work as a sideman (or sidewoman) for the likes of Buddy Rogers, Joe Venuti (whose act included vocalists Kay Starr and The Andrews Sisters), amog many others. In the first of two spells in New York, she was the guitarist in Minton’s house band, where bebop was invented during the jams the legends of jazz had there. Her career continued throughout her life, and she was still performing live up until her death in 1992, at the age of seventy.

Osborne (R), with Billie Holiday (L), 1958. Picture Credit: Nancy Miller Elliot

Equipment

Osborne purchased the same model of Gibson archtop that Charlie Christian played – the ES-150, an early version of the classic archtop ‘jazz boxes’ we know and love today. It came with a large spruce body and a single-coil pickup near the neck, itself containing a large magnet that helped deliver good definition and attack. She later played other guitars by Gibson, as well as models by Gretsch, such as the White Falcon. In the 1970’s, Osborne founded her own guitar company, Osborne Sound Laboratories, formed from the ashes of the Mosrite Guitar Company (whom her husband had worked for at the end of the 1960’s). Osborne Sound Laboratories made amplifiers personally tested by Mary herself, as well as a selection if interesting instruments (including funky looking solid bodies such as in the picture below). Sadly, they couldn’t penetrate the market due to the dominance of the big manufactures, such as Fender (despite their well-known quality issues in this decade) and the company folded in 1980.

Osborne Sound Laboratories guitars from the 1970’s. Picture Credit: VintageGuitar.com

Recommended listening

Osborne’s 1959 LP A Girl And Her Guitar (Warwick) stands testament to her talents in a golden era for jazz guitar. Her later record Now And Then (Stash, 1981) shows a player who survived longer than most of her contemporaries, and continued to play beautifully.

Also, check out The Mighty Two (1963, Roulette), an LP by the two legendary drummers Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa. Although this was conceived as an instructional album for budding drummers, several tracks feature six musicians accompanying both drummers through nine of the songs on the record. As well as featuring Osborne on guitar, you can hear Milt Hinton (bass), Joe Wilder and Joe Newman (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Dick Hymen (piano) and Tyree Glenn (trombone) – something of a who’s who in sidemen for the time. The ensemble playing is tight, and the entire LP is a unique artefact of jazz history.

Great Guitarists #9: Grant Green

Great Guitarists

Welcome back to the Great Guitarists series. We’re continuing along a jazz theme for now, with a sometimes underrated master of understated single line guitar soloing…

Grant Green

Green was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1935, and died in 1979, aged just 43. In his all-too-short career, he played on hundreds of records, including numerous solo titles – almost thirty cuts for Blue Note Records alone. Many of these were played as part of an organ trio (organ, guitar, drums) in a style known as Soul Jazz. This style was sometimes sniffed at by jazz purists, but has since gone on to be something of a cherished gem, and ripe pickings for sampling, especially in hip ho and acid jazz (Read Jorge Cervera’s defence of Grant Green and soul jazz here).

Although less well known than some of his contemporaries, such as Wes Montgomery, his friend George Benson and his main guitar influence Charlie Christian, Green nonetheless possessed a highly recognisable guitar sound, which can be heard in the playing of many guitarists today, myself included. Indeed, his mix of blues, soul and hard bop licks over a funky back beat has become the quintessential sound of upbeat jazz guitar playing.

Equipment and guitar sound

Green most famously used a Gibson ES-330, which is essentially the same shape as the brand’s better-known 335, but with P90 single coil pickups (not unlike an Epiphone Casino). Later on in his career, he played a Gibson L7, Epiphone Emperor and custom-made D’Aquisto guitars, all of which featured similar P90 style pickups. This type of pickup was one of the first kinds added to hollowbody guitars, and Green obviously enjoyed the full, clear sound they provided.

Interestingly, for a guitar player known for his fluid single line style, Green was known to roll the treble and bass entirely off on his amplifiers, to better emphasise the midrange for more bite and attack in his tone – try it with a P90 neck pickup, and see if you can recreate Green’s sound!

Essential listening

Idle Moments (1963) is a great place to start. It’s a slow, contemplative masterclass in cool jazz guitar,and one of my favourite jazz guitar records, along with Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell (more about that here).

There’s a couple of good options for live cuts, but the recently released collection Funk in France, From Paris to Antibes (1969-1970) (2018, Resonance) captures Green at his best. A few of the tracks see the trio lineup complimented by none other than the legendary Barney Kessel, which makes it essential listening for me!

It’s also worth seeking out some of Greenvs funkier efforts, such as… He also made an interesting album of Latin music (The Latin Bit from 1963, on Blue Note again), in which the main theme (the ‘heads’) were played in the usual samba or bossa nova style, but the solos are swung – give it a listen and make of it what you will!

As a sideman, he played on hundreds of recording sessions. Among my personal favourites are Herbie Hancock’s My Point Of View (1963, Blue Note) and Art Blakey’s Hold On I’m Coming (1966, Limelight). However, each record in Green’s expansive discography features great playing and lead lines that we guitarists would benefit from adding to our repertoire!

Just as Green (and countless other great jazz guitarists) did with Charlie Christian’s recordings, listen, learn, then find a way of making it your own…