Hillary Scales-Lewis – photo by Thee Photo Ninja
Soon enough, they clash over Sister Rosetta’s unbridled ferocity in “Rock Me,” a late ’30s hit that melded gospel themes with Tharpe’s blues-style belting and the swinging horns of Lucky Millinder’s big band. They progress to “This Train,” a sacred song set to a boogie beat, and then to strictly secular material like “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”
The musical performances — with Marie playing an upright piano and Tharpe on her trademark guitar (pre-recorded) — culminate in “Strange Things Happen Every Day,” the first gospel song to cross over to a secular audience.
“Strange Things,” a major hit in 1945, is in every aspect a proto-rock ’n’ roll number — right down to its guitar/piano/bass/drums instrumentation. The tune features Tharpe’s spirited guitar work, including a solo. When she later switched to an electric Gibson SG amped up with distortion, and played it with hip-shaking swagger, she influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
Kirvin and Scales-Lewis do an admirable job of evoking the musicianship of their characters — Tharpe, a raucous belter and Knight, a more cautious, measured singer. (This contrast can be heard in the various records they recorded together.)
Illeana Kirvin – photo by Thee Photo Ninja
Further, the stage performances have an impromptu flavor that evokes two women getting to know each other, striving to find shared musical ground — and succeeding. (Kirvin replaced the original Sister Rosetta four days before the play opened, which may have helped add to this extemporaneous quality.)
The song sequence in Marie and Rosetta serves as a history lesson about the origins of rock ’n’ roll — especially as it relates to the struggle between the secular and the sacred. The tunes vividly show the commonality between gospel and blues, while highlighting the tension between the church and singers who dared to venture into more worldly themes.
Sister Rosetta claims that the unbridled joy she projects in her music is in itself a celebration of God, who would approve. “God don’t want the devil to have all the good music,” she declares.
Tharpe was all but ostracized by conservative churchgoers for playing nightclubs and releasing secular material. While she was conflicted about certain aspects, like performing alongside scantily-clad women, she never relented — and continued to meld the two traditions, even engaging in guitar battles at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
It’s nothing short of remarkable that, in the pre-Civil Rights Era, a guitar-slinging black woman, the daughter of cotton pickers in Arkansas, could rise to international fame, help ease the divide between gospel and secular sounds and play a significant role in shaping the popular music to come. She accomplished all this by the sheer dint of her determination and unwillingness to be cowed — along with the talent to pull it off.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s importance was lost, but now it is found.