The original soul sister, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is finally getting the recognition she deserves. Her 2008 biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer, is the inspiration behind Shout Sister Shout!, the new musical about her colorful life.
Known for her lively gospel renditions, Tharpe was a pioneer on several musical fronts. She was one of the first artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar. The “godmother of rock and roll," as she was known, was widely forgotten until she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Shout Sister Shout! playwright Cheryl L. West and author Gayle Wald, who wrote Tharpe's biography, share why this musical icon set the foundation for so many music artists to rock it out.
EBONY: What inspired you to bring Rosetta Tharpe's story to life?
Gayle Wald: I saw a very brief video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and sensed immediately that she was an underappreciated figure in 20th-century American music. We're used to associating the figure of the "guitar god" in rock music with a skinny young white man. But here was a middle-aged Black woman ripping it up. I wanted to know more.
Cheryl L. West: The publication of Gayle’s book was my first introduction to Rosetta Tharpe. After reading the book and watching various documentaries, I became convinced that Tharpe’s story was very theatrical. She was a pioneer, a trailblazing fierce woman who was called the godmother of rock and roll and inspired the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. She was an ambitious woman of courage, a woman who bent the rules in her music, her sexuality and her drive to be her fully authentic self. I wanted to know her, I was intrigued by her enormous amount of gritty courage and artistry. What could she teach me? What could she inspire within me? What could she teach me about being a braver Black female artist? What could I write that would sufficiently honor Tharpe’s panoply of gifts?
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Can you summarize Tharpe's life and why she is so important to the history of rock & roll?
West: She was a bold innovator, a transformative artist and a genius; a Black woman who came to prominence in the 1940s and had a profound influence on rock & roll as we know it today. With her virtuoso guitar picking and deep Christian roots, she managed to combine all genres of music: gospel, the blues, rock and roll, jazz and country.
Wald: I see Rosetta Tharpe as emblematic of the tremendous influence of Black women, including Black female gospel performers, to what we perceive as rock & roll. When a London reporter asked her in the late 1950s about the "new" rock music, she said she had been playing it for years. She was right!
What aspects of Rosetta's life does the musical reveal?
West: Played by the incomparable Carrie Compere in the title role, my musical, Shout Sister Shout! is a joyous trip and a celebration of Tharpe’s life and her iconic music—from stomp-down gospel and swinging jazz to down-home blues. We explore the challenges she faced as a pioneer, first as a young woman trying to find her voice and her agency in the world to the pushback she eventually received as an established artist blending secular sound within Christian themes. Audiences learn about Tharpe, her unwavering faith, her beloved music, her passionate loves and her soul-wrenching disappointments. We laugh with her, cry with her and wildly cheer for her at the play’s end.
What would be surprised to learn about Rosetta Tharpe?
Wald: She had her own tour bus with the words "Sister Rosetta Tharpe—Decca Recording Artist" on the side. According to people who saw it, it had mirrors and a dressing area in it. It was glamorous but it also served a serious purpose, given the fact that Black people were not welcome at most hotels or restaurants.
How is she an icon for the LGBTQ+ community?
West: Tharpe loved love. She married three times. She loved men and she loved women. And to audaciously love in a time of Jim Crow with its rampant misogyny and homophobia speaks to her bravery and her belief in the power of love regardless of how “it came packaged,” to quote a line from the musical.
Wald: Young LGBTQ+ musicians have looked to her as an example of someone who refused to live her life according to norms that constrained her freedom. She is an example of an artist who lived her truth regardless of the consequences.
What do you think Tharpe would say about rock & roll today?
Wald: I think she would be happy to know that people are giving her credit as an innovator of rock & roll.
West: And here’s a quote from Rosetta: “All this new stuff they call rock & roll, why I’ve been playing that for years now… It’s just sped up rhythm and blues.” I think Rosetta would embrace it all with a little chuckle and a chord progression that seemed to ask, “Is that all you got?”
Shout Sister Shout!, now playing through May 13, 2023 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.