When I wrote Shout, Sister, Shout!, I never remotely dreamed that Rosetta Tharpe would one day be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I am used to explaining to people that Rosetta Tharpe is a neglected figure, not that she is part of an establishment rock-and-roll pantheon.
So it was slightly surreal—in a good way—to be present at Cleveland’s Public Hall in April for a ceremony that honored Tharpe along with fellow Rock Hall Class of 2018 inductees Bon Jovi, Nina Simone, the Cars, Dire Straits, and the Moody Blues. And it was thrilling to hear Brittany Howard, erstwhile frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, backed by Questlove, Paul Shaffer, and Felicia Collins, play a rendition of Tharpe’s “That’s All” that was unsurpassed among the evening’s performances.
Yet I had a nagging feeling of unease during the ceremony that, since April, has slowly crystallized into regret that the Rock Hall didn’t do more to use Tharpe’s induction as a “teachable” moment. Tharpe was inducted as an “Early Influence,” a category set aside for musicians whose careers bloomed in the pre-rock era, but that label risks construing her career in too-narrow terms. In truth, Tharpe had second and even third acts in the 1950s and 1960s that were arguably more “influential” than her initial 1940s hit-making.
From the stage, I heard plenty of gratitude expressed for early musical encouragement, lucky breaks, stalwart management, and even steadfast accountants (how un-rock and roll!), but nothing that might help connect the dots between Tharpe and the overwhelmingly white male musicians on stage. My hopes for a shout-out dimmed as the evening slogged on.
Ironically, Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge set the record straight, but during a pre-induction interview, in which he recalled how he had backed Tharpe up during one of her mid-1960s British tours. I have my doubts that Tharpe, who would then have been in her fifties, actually performed the “back somersaults” that Edge colorfully remembers. But the spirit of his account of Tharpe’s audaciousness—a “rock-and-roll” value if there ever was one—spoke volumes.
Brittany Howard’s sublime performance of “That’s All,” a song Tharpe first recorded in 1939, brought the music forward, making it newly relevant in 2018. That’s tremendous. But how tremendous it would have been, too, had the Rock Hall also used Tharpe’s induction to connect the dots between Tharpe and Simone, black women honored after their deaths, and the male inductees who got to bask in the glory of recognition in their lifetimes.
Author: Gayle Wald