Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Gayle F. Wald: Shout, Sister, Shout!

"There are strange things happening every day," Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang on her gigantic 1945 hit, and she would have known. Six years after the release of "Strange Things Happening Every Day," Tharpe held her third wedding at Griffith Stadium, in Washington, D.C., in front of 10,000 paying fans, in a performance so total that she announced the wedding before she'd even found a groom.

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In Gayle F. Wald's Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story Of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first book-length biography of the gospel titan, Tharpe comes across as a performer to the bone. She began performing as a young girl in the Church Of God In Christ, singing and playing guitar. She debuted on record in 1937, at age 22, and spent a few years with popular R&B bandleader Lucky Millinder, who regularly released 78s featuring Tharpe-sung spirituals backed with something inappropriately bawdy, like the November 1941 disc, "Trouble In Mind"/"Big Fat Mama." By the mid-'40s, Tharpe began to concentrate on the gospel circuit again while regularly hitting the Billboard rhythm & blues charts. She worked steadily until 1970, when she was diagnosed with diabetes, which ended her life in October 1973.

Tharpe clearly isn't the easiest subject for a biographer. She gave few deeply revealing interviews, and the press of the time was largely superficial. (Wald writes, "'Out of the spiritual idiom,' Variety concluded, in language so boorish it stands out even by pre-World War II standards, 'she's nothing more than another shoutin' colored gal with a guitar.'") Wald does the best she can with rumors of Tharpe's bisexuality, but the evidence she gathers that the singer dabbled with women as well as men—in particular, with longtime backing singer Marie Knight, who denies any sexual involvement—is either anonymous or third-hand.

As a result, much of Shout, Sister, Shout! proceeds in checklisty fashion. Wald doesn't delve into her subject's music in any real detail until "Strange Things," eight years into Tharpe's recording career; closer readings of the earlier records would have been interesting. But the subject herself is worth the attention—as a crossover artist (a 1943 show in Atlanta drew 10,000 people, some 40 percent white), as the first gospel singer to "go pop" and then go back, as a headstrong composer and instrumentalist as well as a singer and performer. And so is Wald for bringing as much of it to light as possible.