New Jersey resident and veteran actress Carrie Compere remembers the first time she heard the name Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 2011 during a visit to Graceland, the popular tourist attraction and home of Elvis Presley, in Nashville, Tennessee.
But she had no idea that one day she would be portraying Tharpe, “the Godmother of Rock and Roll,” in the East Coast premiere of the musical “SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!”
“I was there working as part of the cast of ‘Shrek the Musical’ and I remember the tour guide telling us if we really wanted to know where Elvis got his start, his inspiration, we should look up Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” Compere said.
“I didn’t act on his suggestion then, but her name resurfaced again in 2019 when I was auditioning for a new musical that features a book by Cheryl West and is inspired by Gayle Wald’s book, ‘Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe,’” she said. “I wasn’t even auditioning for the lead but I was later asked to read for it – and I got the part.”
Compere said she immediately dove in headfirst, anxious to learn “all things Sister Tharpe.”
“I had no idea she was the architect of rock and roll, who those in the know refer to as ‘the godmother,’ ” she said. “But I call her ‘the queen’ because she had a key role in American musical history – in international history. It’s been really eye opening and a bit sad too, because I knew nothing about the contributions and the courage of this woman until well into my adulthood. I’m so proud to be part of this production – this movement honoring Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But why don’t we know more?”
Who Was Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
As audiences will discover in the Ford’s Theatre production, now on stage in Washington, D.C. through May 13, 2023, Tharpe, born Rosetta Nubin, March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, was considered a child prodigy, who, at age six, began to sing and play guitar along with her mother, a gospel vocalist, in performances, part sermon and part gospel concert, across the South.
In the mid-1920s, she and her mother moved to Chicago where her fame grew as she stood out in an era when prominent Black female guitarists were rare. She gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings – a unique blend of spiritual lyrics and electric guitar – becoming the first great recording star of gospel music and one of the first to appeal to both R&B and rock and roll audiences.
As a pioneer in her guitar technique and one of the first recording artists to use heavy distortion on her instrument, she had a profound influence on early rock and roll musicians including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, as well as such British guitarists as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
Tharpe took great risks by crossing the line between the sacred and secular as she performed in nightclubs and concert halls with big bands accompanying her. Three of her songs, “Rock Me” (1938), “This Train” (1939) and “Down by the Riverside” (1944), solidified her name, talent and influence on gospel, jazz and rock and roll artists who would come after her.
In May 2018, Tharpe, who died due to a stroke on Oct. 9, 1973, was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
When asked about her music and about rock and roll, Tharpe is reported to have said, according to her biographer, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll – this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”
Audience Response Tremendous for ‘SHOUT’
Compere said she’s having a wonderful time playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, adding that it’s clear that audiences are enjoying “the live history lesson.”
“When audiences enter the theater, they can access portions of Tharpe’s music and sample her artistry,” she said. “It helps people connect the history of who she was to the musical on stage. Imagine, a little girl from Arkansas whose parents were cotton pickers. No one did what she accomplished in her life – a lot of firsts. The play allows us to see the humanity of what and who she was.”
But it’s not just a history lesson – the music is great, too.
“There’s a lot to take away. And I’m having so much fun – night after night – doing my part to tell her story. The way I describe it is this way: come see this show about a woman you didn’t know you already knew,” said Compere.
Based on Gayle F. Wald’s book Shout, Sister, Shout!, this new musical tells the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe – one of America’s most influential rock, R&B and gospel crossover singers and guitarists. Ambitious, courageous, and uncompromisingly public, Tharpe became a pioneer of the women’s movement for racial and sexual equality and musical legend who redefined the national and international music scene in the 1930s and 40s and beyond. Dive into Cheryl L. West’s spirited, authentic, and emotionally charged story about a charismatic music forerunner and the authentic roots of rock-and-roll. For more information, visit www.fords.org.
Editor’s note on 3/23/23, 5:45 p.m.: Story has been updated with correct spelling of Carrie Compere and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. We apologize for the error.