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The Remarkable Talent of Sister Rosetta Tharpe
October 17, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

It was a time before Elvis or Aretha, a time when "rock" and "soul" were mostly just nouns.

It was when Sister Rosetta Tharpe brought a rocking, soulful feel to gospel music.

Now she's getting fresh attention, via PBS and, eventually, a movie.

"Sister Rosetta Tharpe's contribution to music – specifically to the creation of rock-and-roll – (was) very central to my music taste," said Yola, the singer who gets two chances to inhabit Tharpe.

The first is on Grammy Salute to Music Legends which aired on Friday on PBS (check local listings just in case it hasn't yet aired in your area) but can also be seen on PBS' Great Performances website and the PBS Video app.

Yola sings Tharpe's powerhouse, Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air.

And the second will be in a Baz Luhrmann movie. Sometime.

Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge) had started a film about Elvis Presley, with Yola as Tharpe. "I was supposed to be there for a costume-fitting in April," she said in a virtual session with the Television Critics Association. "April (was) too late, people."

Something called COVID – you may have heard of it – put the film on hold.

Many people might not associate Tharpe with stars like Presley or like Friday's honorees. They include individual performers (Roberta Flack, Isaac Hayes, Iggy Pop, John Prine), a composer (Philip Glass), a record executive (Frank Walker), and two groups (Public Enemy and Chicago).

"It's always inspirational to make those music connections with all the great artists that will be part of it," said Jimmy Jam, the Grammy-winning producer who hosts. "The first concert my parents took me to when I was young was a Chicago concert."

The show also honors Ken Ehrlich, who produced decades of vibrant moments in Grammy telecasts.

Ironically, this PBS special has few such moments. It rarely overcomes the problems of social distancing – especially when it has every member of Chicago give a separate acceptance speech.

But there are glimmering moments early (Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. sing Flack songs), late (a tribute to Prine, who died of COVID in April, at 73), and in between, when Yola sings Tharpe.

"I knew about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, probably from my teens," she said. "Bristol (in England), where I'm from, is very musical, and it houses many a music nerd. So things that might not be so prominent in other parts…of the world would be prominent in Bristol."

That includes the music of Tharpe, who was also profiled by PBS' American Masters in 2013.

She was born in 1915, the daughter of Arkansas cotton-pickers. She sang gospel with her mother at 6, moved to Chicago four years later, and New York at 19.

Tharpe stuck to gospel music but gave a rock twist to her singing and her guitar-playing. It wasn't common, Yola said, "for women in the music industry – let alone women of color – to pick up a guitar."

And it was an electric guitar, played with a fierce distortion. During her British tours – including famed sessions at a train station – Tharpe is said to have influenced Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.

"I heard some of those early recordings and even knew which railway station she was playing in, just outside Manchester," Yola said.

For years, the record industry knew Yola only for singing back-up tracks for Iggy Azalea, the Chemical Brothers, and more, but she also did gigs with bands. It was "this studio-focused life (plus times) I was like a front person for hire."

Then she released her first full, solo album last year and soared. At 36, she received four Grammy nominations – including best new artist – and two chances to inhabit Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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