Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The original soul sister (or so say her posthumous marketers)

Grouchy from lack of sleep lately; hence, little posting, which I regret, because, whether you’ve missed me or not, I’ve missed you.

What I caught of the EMP Pop Conference last week-end was swell and more than swell; comments to come.

I’ve been listening the last few days to Mariah Carey’s MTV Unplugged Live EP. The crazy high notes she hits are dramatic like Duke Ellington’s crazy-high-note trumpeter Cat Anderson could be, except Mariah is her own Cat Anderson, and her intonation is better. She dollops on the melisma with more gusto than the ‘50s and ‘60s soul stars, but I dig her virtuosity as I dig John Coltrane’s, who faced similar criticism. But not only are
Carey’s range and speed stunning, I also love her timbre. A beautiful baseline tone with a subtle variety of effects. Enjoying getting to know her stuff.

* * * *

Also been listening to another excessive melismatic, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe belongs in the center of the history of rock. Among her accomplishments:

1. Perhaps the first rock-and-roll guitarist, having played distorted bluesy electric guitar leads as early as 1941 with Lucky Millinder’s swinging big band. Chuck Berry swiped some of her licks. Howling Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin may have too.

2. An early codifier of the classic soul-rock line-up of electric guitar, organ, piano, bass, and drums.

3. An influential singer, from Elvis to today’s melisma queens.

4. The biggest star in gospel for most of her career.

5. A solid solo-acoustic blues-boogie practitioner.

6. An astonishing joy to listen to.

When I bought her bargain (though repetitious) 4-disc box set The Original Soul Sister a few years ago, I bumped into Kurt Reighley, a local rock critic with whom I am acquainted, who asked me, “Why wasn’t she in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarist?”

Anyway, I listened to her 1956 masterpiece, Gospel Train, yesterday, and I sobbed from the beginning to the end of her song about entering heaven after “crossing to that other shore,” the spooky, hushed, mournful “I Shall Know Him,” which concludes, “by the prints of the nails in His hands.” Her Jesus suffered greatly.

* * * *

Also been listening to Duke Ellington’s off-the-cuff 1959 masterpiece Blues in Orbit. A cornucopia of instrumental blues moods, from jaunty to indigo melancholy, with his matchless sense of orchestral color. A fairly typical mix of great standards from his own songbook and brand new gems. Can’t ever hear too much Duke.

* * * *

Conversation from last week:

The kid: "We went to Broadway."

Me: "Were the neon lights bright on Broadway?"

The kid: "What'd you say? Something silly of course."

My beloved spouse: "He's got your number!"

* * * *

Bonus track: Looking for something I wrote before about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I came across this review I wrote in January 2004 of the box set and the reissue of “Gospel Train,” both of which had come out not too long before. I was going to pitch it to the “Village Voice,” but decided to start this blog instead. A record review I never tried to publish:

review of GOSPEL TRAIN and THE ORIGINAL SOUL SISTER by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

A recent boomlet of interest in virtuoso gospel belter Sister Rosetta Tharpe has brought the reissue of her 1956 album “Gospel Train” along with a 4-disc box set, “The Original Soul Sister.” “Soul Sister” shows off Tharpe’s stylistic breadth, from her first late ‘30s solo-gal-with-a-guitar recordings, through early ‘40s secular and sacred sides with a big band, to her first big gospel hits with a small acoustic R&B group in the mid-’40s. Her first records at age 23 in 1938 show Tharpe to have been, like her contemporaries Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, an early exponent of the thunka-thunka blues boogie guitar rhythm that foreshadowed rock and roll. Tharpe’s sprightly vocal tone suits the handful of secular songs like that hymn to multiple orgasm, “Four or Five Times,” but sounds incongruously joyous when banning “smokers” and “wankers” from Glory. When the songs leave moralizing behind and embrace visionary ecstasy or uncanny Biblical narrative (or, secularly, lust), the music conveys the ecstasy and does justice to the uncanny (and the lust).

“Gospel Train” omits the finger-pointing and is all about ecstasy and the uncanny. When she’s testifying-about rather than preaching-at, Tharpe confronts the life-ultimate questions of meaning, death, multiplicity, and consciousness with a resonantly fervent brew of joy, awe, and existential freak-out. The object of her freak-out is Jesus, but “Gospel Train” puts him in visionary, personal terms. “I’m going to Jesus,” Tharpe chants at one point, and, at another, “there are days I like to be all alone with Christ my Lord.” Evidently her Jesus is a physically existent dude of her personal acquaintance. And the band cooks hot. The organist, pianist, and 2nd guitarist improvise dense soul-blues obligattos, while the swing-jazz-refugee bassist and drummer lay down tight proto-soul beats. It’s a tougher sound than anything on “Soul Sister.”

Layered on top like a beautifully weird-ass frosting are Tharpe’s electric guitar freak-outs, which on “Gospel Train” play like the love child of Hubert Sumlin and Chuck Berry jamming with Aretha Franklin’s 1968 band. But “love child” is anachronistic because “Soul Sister” shows that as early as 1941 Tharpe was playing dirty distorted electric solos that sting and skronk with speedy triplet runs, bluesy bent notes, slashing slides up the neck, winking vibrato, Chuck-ling double-string licks, and a driving, syncopated rhythm with abrupt, ear-grabbing phrasing.

What W.E.B. DuBois capitalized as the Frenzy and the Music of the black American church can sound erotically carnal to people raised on rock and roll, especially since mainstream American religion is a meditative descendant of Puritanism. But the church wasn’t always button-down and gray flannel. In the Acts of the Apostles the first Christians pray so hard that buildings shake. Gospel honors that tradition, and songs about the resurrection of bodies and of knowing Jesus “by the prints of the nails in His hands” reveal Tharpe’s Christianity to be doctrinally as well as musically carnal. If you have ears for rock and soul history, Tharpe’s music testifies that upon this church we have built our rock. And “Gospel Train” can make an agnostic devotee of Charlie Watts wonder whether the original “rolling stone” wasn’t necessitated by the Resurrection after all.

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