Shout, Sister, Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

By Gayle F. Wald, Beacon Press, 2007

It’s a truism about rock ’n’ roll—and about most other things: The more you know, the more you realize you need to know. So if you come to the conclusion that Jimi Hendrix was the ultimate guitar god in the history of rock ’n’ roll, you need to know what it was that made him Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, you’ll come to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

You might not see the connection right away. She was a gospel singer with a cake-icing hairdo who sang about the Lord in the 1950s and ’60s. But watch her right hand, the little movement she does when she bends the string during the solo…it’s soooo Hendrix. But it’s all Tharpe.

In the short version of the story, rock ’n’ roll was born when country and western met rhythm and blues. Gospel often gets overlooked. In the best early rock ’n’ roll music—the songs of Little Richard, let’s say—you can hear the congregation stamping its feet. Soul songwriter Dan Penn once dismissed the Beatles because he didn’t hear any “church” in their music.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a masterful gospel performer, but her influence is also felt in rock ’n’ roll. Turn her sacred words secular and she’s a rock monster, in the same way that the Staple Singers’ gospel recordings in the early 1960s are musically indistinguishable from their mainstream hits a decade later.

Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout! shines a light on this obscure but hugely influential performer. Wald’s meticulous research reveals a woman with astounding musical gifts who was at home in both the secular and spiritual worlds, but whose life was a litany of tragedies. Unlucky in love, too distinct to classify musically and beset by diabetes, she created memorable and idiosyncratic music that found its greatest audience after her death. It’s another before-her-time epic and certainly a book worthy of the artist it celebrates.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.