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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Cream Of The Crate CD Review #9: Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Down By the Riverside



cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
CD Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]


  This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.

"She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing." - [On Her Epitaph]

Cream Of The Crate Reviews 1 to 50 were vinyl album reviews.  
The following fifty reviews (51 - 100) were originally marked as CD Reviews 1 - 50
and this numbering has been kept to keep consistency with the published CD reviews.

This is
number nine in the series of albums I’m featuring as part of an on-going retrospective of CD’s in my personal collection.

The series is called, “Cream of The Crate (CD’s)”, and they represent CD albums that I believe are of significant musical value, either because of their rarity, because they represent the best of a style or styles of music or because their is something unique about the group or the music.

This release is in a single CD and has no accompanying booklet. In fact it has a plain CD cover (both sides), not at all swanky or ‘zappy’ which somehow, it is entirely appropriate.

The CD features Sister Rosetta Tharpe and is titled Down By The Riverside. It was released in 2002 on the MasterSong Label (50) by Mastertech Pty Ltd, and manufactured Australia.

It has 24 tracks.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
CD Label – [CLICK to enlarge]


The story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the story if a young girl with a great voice, a girl bought up to appreciate and love gospel.

It is the story of a girl who married a ‘man of the cloth’ and who took the name sister. She traveled with her husband further developing her gospel singing style.

Then divorced him and went from playing simple acoustic guitar in order to back herself during his sermons, to being backed by a red hot band and pushing Gospel Music into the mainstream.

As a result we can rightly declare she is, the true ‘Godmother of R & R‘.

Then after a short period of amazing success she became largely forgotten.

It has only been in recent times that her story and her music is receiving the accolades that she and the music deserves.

That’s her story in a pinch – but lets flesh this story out a little more!

Born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915 – she was born into the poorest of the poor families.

Her parents were cotton pickers. The identity of her father is unknown, however her mother Katie Bell Nubin, is known to have played the Mandolin and was a singer and evangelist preacher with The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) which is a Pentecostal Holiness Christian denomination that has a predominantly black following.

With encouragement from her mother she began singing and playing guitar from the age of four and as a result became known as “Little Rosetta Nubin“.

Billed as a “singing and guitar playing miracle,” Rosetta Tharpe accompanied her mother in hybrid performances—part sermon and part gospel concert in froint of audiences all across the American South.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Rosetta with her mother – [CLICK to enlarge]


She traveled widely during the mid 1920’s, always with her mother, performing at church conventions throughout the country. 

As a result, she developed considerable fame as a musical prodigy, standing out in an era when prominent black female guitarists remained very rare; blues legend Memphis Minnie was the only such performer to enjoy national fame at the time.

In 1934 she married a COGIC preacher, Thomas Tharpe. Now although the marriage only lasted a short while she decided she would continue to use her married name and to utilise her religious and spiritual background by taking on the title of “Sister”, and so she became Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

In 1938 at the age of thirty three, she moved to New York City and was signed by Decca Records and immediately cut four tracks, Rock Me, That’s All, The Man and I and The Lonesome Road.

Not only were these the first gospel tracks ever recorded by Decca, but all four became instant hits so establishing her as one of the USA’s first commercially successful gospel singers.

In December of 1938 she gave a performance that would for ever revolutionise live performance.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
The young “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe – [CLICK to enlarge]

Not only did she perform gospel music in front of a largely secular audience, she did it singing gospel with the backing of blues and jazz musicians.

However the thing that stunned most people at that time, was the fact that on stage was a black female playing guitar!

Black or white, a woman doing this was at that time highly frowned upon.



Later she gained even more notoriety by performing regularly with jazz legend Cab Calloway at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.

During the early 1940s, Tharpe continued to bridge the worlds of religious gospel music with more secular sounds, producing music that defied easy classification.

Accompanied by Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra, she recorded such secular hits as Shout Sister Shout, That’s All and I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.

That’s All was the first record on which Tharpe played the electric guitar; this song would have an influence on such later players as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lucky Millinder and orchestra – [CLICK to enlarge]


In fact in one of music histories great ironies, she was backed in the early 1940’s by non other than the Jordainaires – yes THE Jordanaires who would eventually back Elvis.

Don’t discount the situation of a black gospel singer being backed by a group of white boys! In itself it was most indeed most unusual!

By the mid 1940’s she was highly in demand and made yet another major breakthrough teaming up with blues pianist Sammy Price to record music featuring an unprecedented combination of piano, guitar, and gospel singing.

The duo’s two most famous tracks, recorded in 1944, were Strange Things Happening Every Day and Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread.

However in the face of intense criticism from the religious community, who viewed her jazzy collaborations with Price as the devil’s music, Tharpe returned to recording more Christian music later in the 1940s.

In 1947 she formed a duet with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight to record such overtly spiritual traditional gospel songs as Oh When I Come to the End of My Journey, Stretch Out and Up Above My Head (“I Hear Music in the Air”).

However, in 1953 she and Knight moved from the gospel genre to record what was very much a non-religious blues based album.

This was a massive flop and she faced widespread condemnation, not the least from the religious community which had been where her most loyal fans came from.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Marie Knight & the Sister sing up a storm – [CLICK to enlarge]

She continued to tour and sing over the next two decades, but it was never the same and she suffered from a gradually deteriorating profile.

Then in 1970 while touring with Muddy Waters in Europe, she fell ill and returned to the USA where she suffered a stroke. Then due to complications with diabetes, she had a leg amputated.

Despite her health woes, Tharpe continued to perform regularly for several more years.

In October 1973 she suffered a second stroke and passed away days later on October 9 at the age of 58 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

During her life she released a total of 17 albums, the first being Lonesome Road in 1941, and the last being Singing In My Soul Savoy in 1969.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside


Now it’s time to actually look at and discuss the music on the CD – Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Down By The Riverside.

The first thing I should do is to provide an opinion on her playing and style.

It has best been described as a guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.

Her playing is exciting and her singing is exciting! Here is a list of tracks on this album.

Track Listing

  1. Strange Things Are Happening Everyday
  2. Rock Me*
  3. Trouble In Mind*
  4. That’s All*
  5. Down By The Riverside
  6. Don’t Take Everybody To Be You Friend
  7. How Far From God
  8. When I Move To The Sky
  9. Jesus Is Here Today
  10. This Train
  11. Jonah
  12. Shout Sister Shout
  13. I Looked Down The Line
  14. Forgive Me Lord
  15. Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)**
  16. My Journey To The Sky
  17. Just A Closer Walk With Thee
  18. God Don’t Like It
  19. I Want Jesus To Walk Around My Bedside**
  20. Stretch Out
  21. Jesus Taught Me How To Smile**
  22. I Want A Tall Skinny Papa. *

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Rear CD Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

It’s hard to go past playing the track that has given the album its title – Down By The Riverside.

It was a hit in 1944 hit and was selected for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2004, with the citation stating that it captured her “spirited guitar playing” and “unique vocal style”, which were an influence on early rhythm and blues performers, as well as gospel, jazz, and rock artists.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Chris Barber & Sister Rosetta Tharpe

It’s certainly a well known gospel track that has probably featured in ever gospel singers repertoire at some time, and Sister Rosetta sings it with such fervour and passion it is easy to understand why she was loved by the true gospel audiences.

Yet that response was still not as strong as it was to some of her other more secular ‘gospel’ renditions.

Down By The Riverside

In some ways I could really just go straight down the CD!

There is no weak track on this CD.  What I will try to do is to provide examples of pure gospel, rock derivative (or rather a track that rock derived itself stylistically from), and a track with the good Sister just accompanying herself on guitar.

So next let’s move to track #1 – Strange Things Happening Everyday.

There are a few of good reasons for picking this track!

I like it a lot.  It’s catchy and great gospel, albeit not quite presented in the same way as traditional gospel, and is one of those ‘secular’ gospel tracks that allowed her to attract a much wider audience.

Sure it has backing singers singing the refrain, but that’s not unusual with gospel.

There is a defined backing group, but the main instrument (other than the Sisters voice),is her guitar playing. It’s almost a case of minimalistic backing so much so that at times you actually forget there is a backing group

Oh, we heard church people say
They are in the holy way
There are strange things happening everyday
Oh, the last man judgment day
When they drive him all away
There are strange things happening everyday

There are strange things happening everyday

There are strange things happening everyday
If you want to view the climb
You must learn to quit your lyin’
There are strange things happening everyday
If you heal right through the lies
You can live right all the ties
There are strange things happening everyday

There are strange things happening everyday

There are strange things happening everyday
Jesus is the holy light
Turning darkness into light
There are strange things happening everyday
He gave the blind man sight
When he praised Him with all his might
There are strange things happening everyday

There are strange things happening everyday
There are strange things happening every

The track was a hit for her in 1944. It features her on electric guitar, and Sammy Price (piano). Unfortunately I can find no record of who played bass and drums.

It was the first gospel record to cross over, hitting #2 on the Billboardrace records” chart, the term then used for what later became the R&B, in April 1945.

Despite it generally being accepted that Rock & Roll came from a melting pot of styles, it has been argued very hard by some, that this track was a direct pre-curser to Rock and Roll.

I can’t disagree.

Strange Things Are Happening Everyday

In contrast, track #2 – Rock Me, is a fantastic track that also showcases the talents and arrangements of Lucky Millinder.

In many ways if you ignore that words and that the Sister is singing gospel, you can imagine yourself in a nightclub in the early 1940’s.

The band is right, the voice is right!

The track really does demonstrate the feeling, power and presence Tharpe had when she had a big band behind her. It’s hard not to imagine that she was thoroughly enjoying herself.

We can only muse on what might have been had she been singing more popular musical genre of the day.

Despite her lack of singing ‘popular’ compositions, somehow it doesn’t seem like we missed out on much, as her rendition of this track shows what she could do.

Rock Me

Track #12 – Shout Sister Shout, has always appealed to me.

It’s another track featuring Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra. The jazz/swing feeling of the track is fantastic and I love the lyrics, particularly these lines.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Shout Sister, Shout! – [CLICK to enlarge]
Now listen everybody to the  precious words
I’m gonna do some chirping
And I ain’t no bird
There’s a reason for living
A reason for dying
A darned good reason why a woman starts crying
A reason for a mole, a reason for a dimple
But there ain’t no reason why a man’s so simple

(Shout, sister shout) Yeah!
(Shout, sister shout) I’m tellin’ you
(Shout, sister shout) Yeah!
(Tell the whole world what it’s all about)


When the good Sister declares, “But there is no reason why a man’s so simple!” We just sing, Shout Sister Shout!

Shout Sister Shout

Despite the enormity of her influence, Tharpe was quickly forgotten by the mainstream musical culture.

For many years following her death in 1973, she lay in an unmarked grave. In the last decade, though, there has been a slow resurgence of appreciation for her.

In 2011–the same year Rosetta Tharpe’s grave finally received a headstone largely thanks to a fundraising concert– filmmaker Mike Csaky directed a documentary called The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.


cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
Her headstone – [CLICK to enlarge]


Here is an interview with the film maker talking about her.

On October 5, 2017, she was listed as a nominee for the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. On December 13, 2017, she was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.

I don’t think there really is any debate, Sister Rosetta Tharpe wears the crown of the “Godmother” of Rock and Roll“, and it sits comfortably.

cream of the crate cd review #9: sister rosetta tharpe – down by the riverside
The real Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll : Sister Rosetta Tharpe – [CLICK to enlarge]


This is a fantastic CD as it is a collection of all the very best of the tracks that Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded.

It is essential in any serious collectors collection and I encourage you to seek it out.

The last time I checked Ebay, there was one copy for around Au$28.00 (inc postage) and US$18.00 on Amazon.



There are some surprisingly good videos of live performances of Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing, so I have chosen three, one of which is a song that pretty much sums up the good “Sister” – Up Above My head [I Hear Music in the Air].


Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air


This Train


Trouble In Mind


Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:


To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –

cream of the crate cd review #2 : robert johnson – the complete recordings


Click to open the following CD reviews:

#1. The Fugs: The Fugs First Album

#2. Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings

#3. Bob Dylan – Biograph

#4. Robin Trower – Essential

#5. Various Artists – Sixties Down Under Compilation

#6. Various Artists – The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans

#7. Hugh Masekela – African Breeze: 80’s

#8. The Last Poets – The Very Best of the Last Poets

Rob Greaves
I have been with the Toorak Times since April 2012. I work as Senior Editor of the Toorak Times, but I also think of myself as senior contributor. I've been in the Australian music scene as a musician since 1964, and have worked in radio and TV and newspapers (when they were paper ), serious experience in audio editing, and a lot of video editing experience. Currently I'm working as a radio program producer for a national interview program as well as my work with the Toorak Times