Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know. A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.
The late great Willie Dixon once said “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits”. While it might be taboo to disagree with a musical legend like Dixon (especially while he was alive as he was also a 300-lbs boxer), I must respectfully do so. In my personal opinion, it is Gospel and spiritual music that we have to credit with being the musical tree that provided us with all other forms of popular music.
While popular music may have evolved further and further away from it’s roots in Gospel and spiritual music over the years you can still hear the genre’s influence in some of today’s popular music. Example, when you listen to artists like Beyonce’, Childish Gambino, and Bruno Mars you can definitely hear that somewhere along the way they were influenced, maybe indirectly, by artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. James, Aretha, and Ray were all influenced heavily by Gospel music. Aretha grew up in the in the church, Ray took a song by the little known gospel group The Southern Tones and turned it into “I Got A Women”, and Mr. Brown’s stage show was basically a secular version of a baptist revival. Same with Country music. You’d be hard pressed to find a country artist today that wasn’t inspired by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, or George Jones in some way. Each of those artists recorded several gospel albums over their long and impressive careers. Rock music? Same thing. Most modern rock bands in some way have been inspired by artists like The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, etc. Those artists listened to the Blues and Blues came from Gospel and spiritual music. We could talk about how Jamaican Reggae and Ska musicians listened to Blues, R&B, and Gospel music in the 1950’s over radio waves they picked up from America, but my feeling is you’re getting my point. The roots of most genres of popular music begin in Gospel and spiritual music.
Now, while one might enjoy the melodies in Gospel music there still might be a hang up when it comes to the lyrics. I totally understand that. Personally I am not a religious person and identify more as an atheist. Still, I LOVE classic gospel and spiritual music! I love the passion in the music and the wonderful melodies. Also, I appreciate how Gospel music has helped a lot of folks through some very rough times in history. So while I may not have all the same beliefs as the person singing the music I am still able to enjoy the music.
Here are some of my favorite Gospel albums and artists that I hope you’ll check out.
FREEDOM HIGHWAY epic records
While a live album of the same name was released in 1965 (which is also excellent) this record is compiled of studio versions of Gospel classics such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, and “Wade In The Water”. The record also features probably the best song band leader Roebuck “Pops” Staples ever wrote, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. Pops wrote the song after watching the events surrounding “The Little Rock Nine” unfold on television. The song became a hit not only for the Staple Singers but also an anthem of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s.
BROTHER JOHN SELLERS
BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGS smithsonian folkways recordings
Born in Mississippi in 1924, Brother John Sellers was one of the best (and most underrated) Blues/Gospel singers ever to record. His larger-then-life voice is best showcased here on his 1959 album BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGS. Sellers was discovered by the great Mahalia Jackson when he was a youngster performing in local gospel showcases. As an adult he became an in-demand entertainer performing all over the world with legends like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Jo Jones, and Jackson herself. He passed away from diabetes related complications in 1999.
MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH columbia records
During Mahalia Jackson’s impressive career she introduced millions of music lovers all over the world to Gospel music. She inspired artists such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, performed for world leaders, and was a powerful presence in the civil rights movement. While she has hundreds of recordings my personal favorite is MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH. The material is mostly up beat and beautifully recorded. Even though this record came out later in Jackson’s career her voice has never sounded better.
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
20th CENTRY MASTERS COLLECTION
Few Gospel vocal groups have been more influential then The Dixie Hummingbirds. During the 1940’s and 50’s (generally referred to as “The Golden Age of Gospel”), they were megastars. They packed arenas, paved the way for future vocal groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops, and sold piles of records. You can even trace their influence to modern pop groups like Boys II Men and N’Sync. While the Hummingbirds have many recordings available a great place to start is their “best of” collection “THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS 20th CENTURY MASTERS”. This collection gives you a good overview of their sound and features their Grammy winning hit “Loves Me Like A Rock”.
THE SOUL STIRRERS
JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS
ABKCO Music & Records
The Soul Stirrers were another group that were megastars during the Gospel’s golden age. While they are best known for being the group that kick-started Sam Cooke’s career in the 1950’s, the group’s origins go back to the mid 1930’s. With Cooke in the group the Stirrers achieved rockstar-like status and recorded several hits for Specialty Records. While the group was at their musical best when they were with Cooke, my personal favorite collection of theirs is JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS. This collection features recordings the group did for Sam Cooke’s own record label SAR Records after he had officially left the group. Many of these recordings were produced by Cooke himself and show that even in their later years the group was one of the very best vocal Gospel groups.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
GOSPEL OF THE BLUES
While there are many recordings of Sister Rosetta available a good place to start when wanting to learn more about her music is a collection of her early recordings entitled THE GOSPEL OF THE BLUES. This collection is complied of tracks recorded 1938 – 1948 and features a dynamite version of her hit “Shout, Sister, Shout”. The record also features a number of her recordings with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra and the Sammy Price Trio. These tracks show that Sister Rosetta could swing as hard as she could rock!