From the queen of blues to the godmother of rock, two female legends of the guitar
By Vicente Mateu
With traces of cotton fibres still
on their fingers, their hands strummed the guitar with a woman's sensuality and
the rage of their ebony skin. Their voices still engage us almost a century
later, with their vintage recorded sound blending blues, gospel and jazz right
up to the first tentative steps towards rock 'n' roll. Their names are Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, two kindred six-string spirits in America of
the 1930s and 1940s who even died at virtually the same time, the former in
August 1973 and the latter two months later. Two legends who were born to find one
Legends of the guitar, of course. Elizabeth ‘Kid’ Douglas (Louisiana, 1897) and Rosetta Nubin (Arkansas, 1915) are the symbols and models for every woman who picks up a guitar; two fighters who triumphed in a closed society through their talent and, above all, their deep sense of blues. Their guitar technique, comparable to their male peers, guaranteed them a renown that was only driven home by two of the finest female voices to ever sing the blues. Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta were making their mark in a world dominated by men.
They both developed their careers at practically the same time, between the '20s and '50s. Both travelled very different routes through the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century, building up experience until they found their destiny in the same windy city, the legendary Chicago.
The Queen Who Died in Poverty
Minnie holds the place of honour in the encyclopaedias of female guitarists, even beyond the blues. A position that simply can't be argued with -along with boasting one of the great voices of the genre- thanks to a legacy of close to 200 recordings, the first made in 1929 and the last one two decades later. Long enough for her to engage in her trademark picking on the strings of the banjo she played when she was still Kid Douglas, as well as on the electric guitar that amazed the clients of the nightclub in Chicago she withdrew to in the '40s with her third husband Ernest Lawlars, better known as Little Son Joe. Everything stayed in the family.
However, authorities in the field recommend the early recordings by Minnie, 100% unplugged and better than anyone could possibly expect playing a very cheap guitar. The '30s were a very fruitful, productive decade for her, first with her second husband Kansas Joe McCoy and then with producer Lester Melrose leading a group of musicians with full permission to experiment and explore every whim of her voice and hands. The first of those legendary recordings for the Vocalion label -Bumble Bee / I’m Talking About You- was an impressive debut in every way and became a massive hit.
To be fair, her biggest hit was performed on electric guitar, the first one she ever had and the first song she recorded with it: Me and my Chauffeur Blues, essential on any of the jukeboxes that were turning into another symbol of the made-in-USA lifestyle of the time.
Many guitarists then and now learned and continue learning from the woman known as the "Queen of the Blues", although her legend didn't free her from dying in poverty, barely able to survive thanks to the donations of friends and fans who were transfixed listening to her in nightclubs. Bonnie Raitt would pay tribute to her in 1996 by paying for a headstone for her grave in Walls, Mississippi.
In December 2015, they are still keeping her songs in circulation by releasing the first volume of her post-war recordings.
The Double Life of Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe has been called the "godmother of rock 'n' roll" for being the great female influence on Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The one female guitarist capable of outshining the great Minnie led a double life. By day, she was a devout gospel artist but by night she was shaking to the very beginnings of rock and rhythm & blues.
Two very different styles for the same woman, who accompanied her mother with her voice and guitar on an evangelical mission in the southern United States. And in 1944, with electricity now coursing through her fingers, she recorded the first song officially recognized as rock 'n' roll, Strange Things Happening Every Day.
It was a complete success for Decca, whose decision to back Sister Rosetta with Sammy Price's boogie woogie piano was right on the money. Twenty years younger than Memphis Minnie, she was heir to her style of playing and singing, too, because our sister Rosetta also had an exceptional voice. Probably even better in fact. Her command of the guitar, even more so for being a woman, catapulted her to fame from the trenches of the U.S. soldiers deployed in Europe.
The age difference meant Rosetta enjoyed technology far superior to her predecessor, who was retired by the time of Tharpe's emergence. What interests us most about our 'sister' is the quality of her recordings because, when talking about her guitars...to listen to them in their pure state, without effects or amplifiers, is a sensation that goes beyond the simple pleasure of listening to good music. There is something magical hidden inside her teasing gospel rhythm which wound the clock of Bill Haley and the Comets up a decade before they found out they wanted to rock around it.
And suddenly you realize you're listening to some of the first 'modern' guitar solos. Not just of blues -although they are also good examples of that- but 'picking' that is almost too reminiscent of the techniques used by Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page to astound their audience.
It's not at all surprising that the rock and soul world would be attracted to someone like Sister Rosetta, who concealed the soul of a transgressor with both her voice and her Gibson SG behind a holier-than-thou image. But she was only able to show that side of herself in the clubs and it led to problems in her other life, the one dominated by religion, where neither a woman earning her living as a guitarist nor, naturally, her style of playing gospel was looked upon favourably. Too exuberant, too swinging for a world still resistant to change.
However, in real life her fame would be eclipsed by giants like Mahalia Jackson. She toured Europe with the big names in the '60s, when gospel and spirituals came back into fashion and even sold some records. The 'girl guitarist' was still something new then and she took as much advantage of it as she could and climbed on board for what would be her final voyage.
On one of those European tours in 1970 with Muddy Waters as the headliner, diabetes claimed one of her legs and she was forced to return to the US gravely ill. Even though she managed to recover and even performed and recorded again, her body gave out three years later. Memphis Minnie had died two months before, alone in a nursing home.
Mrs. Tharpe -the surname of the first of her three husbands- never stayed still almost from the day she was born in Cotton Plant. She was a complete artist, always searching for new ways of surprising her audience from the time of her first performance at four years old! In the late '40s, she joined forces with a young friend -and lover- named Marie Knight, gifted with a voice capable of filling any theatre or club by itself.
Between the two, plus Sister Rosetta's guitar, they armed a bomb that exploded in Up Above My Head, one of those songs that always gives you goose bumps. Those were the golden years, when 25,000 people would pack a stadium in Washington, D.C. to hear her sing and play after celebrating her third wedding there in 1951. Sister Rosetta was already a legend by then.
From the queen of the blues to the godmother of rock. Two guitars shaped like the body of a woman, a recurring metaphor that those two women, however briefly, turned into reality. Two female pioneers whose influence on 20th century music is much greater than most biographers of the blues are willing to acknowledge. Men, naturally.