Wednesday, October 15, 2008

'Cause I can play this here guitar, Pt. 23

Quick, name your fave female rock guitarist:

Bonnie Raitt: Sure, that was easy. Hardly unappreciated.

Jennifer Batten: Flash rock skills, to be sure.

But then . . .

No, we won't count the following, for while they're guitarists, and women, they're competent but hardly great rock guitarists:

Joan Jett
Chrissie Hynde
Nancy Wilson
Melissa Etheridge
Lita Ford,
Kaki King

And others, of course. Comments are welcome, as are disagreements.

But I have a follow-up question: Who was the first female rock guitarist?

Here's my nomination:

But wait, that's Gospel, you say. Maybe, but listen to that solo starting at 1:25. Now are you convinced?
Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915October 9, 1973) was a pioneering Gospel singer, songwriter and recording artist who attained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and early rock accompaniment. She became the first great recording star of Gospel music in the late 1930s and also became known as the "original soul sister" of recorded music.

Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her inspirational music of 'light' in the 'darkness' of the nightclubs and concert halls with big bands behind her, her witty, idiosyncratic style also left a lasting mark on more conventional gospel artists, such as Ira Tucker, Sr., of the Dixie Hummingbirds. While she offended some conservative churchgoers with her forays into the world of pop music, she never left gospel music.

Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, she began performing at age four, billed as "Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle", accompanying her mother, Church of God in Christ (COGIC) evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, who played mandolin and preached at tent revivals throughout the South. Exposed to both blues and jazz both in the South and after her family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, she played blues and jazz in private, while performing gospel music in public settings. Her unique style reflected those secular influences: she bent notes the way that jazz artists did and picked guitar like Memphis Minnie.

Rosetta also crossed over to secular music in other ways. After marrying COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe (from which "Tharpe" is a misspelling) in 1934 and moving to New York City, she recorded four sides with Decca Records backed by "Lucky" Millinder's jazz orchestra. Her records caused an immediate furor: many churchgoers were shocked by the mixture of sacred and secular music, but secular audiences loved them. Appearances in John Hammond's 1938 extravaganza "From Spirituals To Swing", at the Cotton Club and Café Society and with Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman made her even more popular. Songs like "This Train" and "Rock Me", which combined gospel themes with bouncy up-tempo arrangements, became smash hits among audiences with little previous exposure to gospel music.

Based on the guitar, an interim Gibson Les Paul Custom, introduced in '61 or so, this is probably an early '60s TV appearance.

Here's a recording of Sister Rosetta with some nice acoustic work, and a fun video showing some live clips, and some great photos as well. Note that she plays Gibson exclusively. Great taste in instruments.