With the wealth of voices on this CD it is easy to forget the fact that it is a tribute album. Maria Muldaur is the most heavily involved, singing on four of the tracks and producing six. Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli and Tracy Nelson turn up in various combinations, and although Bonnie Raitt doesn't sing her guitar playing with Maria has that obvious class. And there are more I'll mention later.
But, lest we forget, it is a tribute, so who is Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Shame on you for asking. She was not only one of the most compelling gospel artists of all time, but also worked in blues and jazz (with Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder and Sammy Price among many others), a rare professional crossover at that time. As well as being an imposing singer and songwriter her use of electric guitar was as innovative and influential in her sphere as Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker were in theirs.
Given the spiritual nature of most of the songs here it is unsurprising that the big voices sound absolutely right. "Two Little Fishes And Five Loaves Of Bread" could have been written for Odetta, and Phoebe Snow's "Beams Of Heaven" sounds utterly convincing, while one can only imagine Tharpe smiling at what Sweet Honey In The Rock do with "Precious Memories".
Interestingly, a couple of white singer-guitarist-songwriters one wouldn't normally associate with gospel singing acquit themselves well in solo performances. Janis Ian's version of "This Train" is exquisite (if you don't know the words you probably know the tune as it was used later for Little Walter's "My Babe"), while Rory Block is at her considerable best on "Stand By Me".
An honorary mention too for the album's token males, the Holmes Brothers, who give sterling support on different tracks to Joan Osborne, Odetta, Phoebe Snow and Victoria Williams.
The CD closes with two tracks from the roots of the music. Sister Marie Knight sings "Didn't It Rain", a song she and Tharpe co-composed when they worked together in the 1940s, but she still has the ability and power to do it justice in this recording from March. The last track is allegedly an audio-visual clip (only audio on my PC, I'm afraid) of Tharpe herself singing "Down By The Riverside" for an early 1960s TV programme, stirring enough to remind you why such a heavenly choir of contemporary singers were inspired to contribute to this project.
There is a webpage for this CD at www.mc-records.com/html/rosetta_release.html, with a clip of the Joan Osborne track, "Nobody's Fault But Mine".
Proper Records (www.propermusic.com) have brought out a four CD set by Tharpe, "The Original Soul Sister". It's cheap, you can get it from Amazon in America, it's got 81 great tracks (including her versions of all the songs on "Shout, Sister, Shout") and lots of info. Get that and then get this.
Now, time to confess. I'm an atheist.
But if I could hear sounds like this in my local church I would reconsider.
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