The best documentaries tell you something you do not already know. And if you're really lucky, they will contain a story as good, or better than, a Hollywood film.
The "American Masters" (9 p.m., PBS, TV-PG) presentation of "Sister Ro setta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll" clicks on both
cylinders. It's a can't-miss for fans of pop
Gone 40 years, Tharpe
offered a remarkable link
between the worlds of gospel, big band, rhythm and blues,
boogie-woogie and what became known as rock 'n' roll. And she did so while playing raw, bluesy, muscular riffs on an electric guitar long before such performances were seen as
ladylike or fit for a singer of
Her life was as colorful, tragic and cinematic as her performances. Born to a poor farmer/musician and a self-taught evangelist, Tharpe was just a child when she began to accompany, and then quickly outperform, her mother on the evangelizing circuit. Her mother took Rosetta out of the South, moving to Chicago and having a controlling influence on her for most of her life. She later married her daughter off to a cruel and exploitive
Tharpe's decision to leave that marriage coincided with her entry into the secular, often profane popular music of New York's Cotton Club and other big band venues. Her departure from pure gospel, which came decades before Ray Charles and Sam Cooke made similar creative decisions, was seen as a betrayal. She continued to bridge the two worlds and sing spirituals as Sister Rosetta.
Her personal life included several semipublic relationships with other women, including longtime collaborator Marie Knight. Having been victimized by an arranged religious marriage in her youth, Tharpe orchestrated a brazen public wedding ceremony in 1951, marrying a music manager she barely knew in front of 25,000 fans at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The stunt worked, but the marriage foundered.
"Sister" includes great, but sadly, rare archival footage of her performances, as well as interviews with peers, the children of peers and members of the gospel groups the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Jordan-
aires, Elvis Presley's vocal accompanists, who broke the color barrier by performing with Tharpe during the years of strict racial segregation.
It would have been nice to hear from the legends (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard) Tharpe influenced. And some of the
narration leans toward the perfunctory. But this "American Masters" goes to the top of the charts in my book. At a time when many rock histories offer cliche-ridden meditations on the all-too-familiar, "Sister" provides curious viewers that rarest of treats: unexplored
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Kevin McDonough can be reached at email@example.com.