Gospel Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, 1937-1947

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was among the wildest figures in American music of the 1940s. That’s saying something considering that the decade saw the birth of bebop and the heyday of jump blues. By trade and by faith, the native of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, was a gospel singer. She also played mean guitar—in an authoritative, rhythmic way that remains instantly identifiable. From the start of her professional career in 1938, Tharpe didn’t limit herself to churches and revival tents: Incurring the wrath of the pious, she took her music into nightclubs, where she informed revelers that the Lord’s train would not carry any drinkers to the promised land. She rocked hard decades before there was rock and roll, jammed with jazz and blues musicians, and performed with Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. These associations—and her swinging, genre-blurring recordings—made her the first gospel trailblazer, a “crossover” artist who approached spiritual music with a spritz of showbiz.

Tharpe had a fixed repertoire; she recorded the same pieces (like “This Train” and “Down by the Riverside”) over and over again, with different backing. This three-disc set begins with solo recordings and late ’30s works with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra that set forth the basic Tharpe style—a shouting, declamatory vocal offset by incessantly swinging rhythm guitar. After more solo sides (including a trembling “Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares”), Tharpe hit her stride in 1944 when she began a decade-long collaboration with the Sammy Price Trio. The combination of Tharpe’s crisp rhythm guitar and pianist Price’s heavy, boogie-woogie left hand was downright radical in the pre-rock era, and remains incendiary to this day. Tharpe roars through blues songs with devotional lyrics, and old-time spirituals (“Strange Things Happening Every Day”), as though every tune is a new chance to nudge wayward souls toward the straight and narrow. Part of her jubilation, though, is musical: She’s finally found musicians who can keep up with her hard-charging style, and she’s going to ride that locomotive as far as it will take her.

GENRE: Gospel.
RELEASED: 2001, Document. (Also available as The Original Soul Sister on Proper.)
KEY TRACKS: “Didn’t It Rain,” “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” “This Train,” “Rock On,” “Down by the Riverside.”

Strong Again

Marion Williams

Marion Williams begins this, her best solo album, by making a list of troubles that might be helped by prayer. Cancer. Gambling. Alcoholism. Whatever the habit or affliction, the indomitable Williams is committed to trying to get things moving in the right direction. To that end, she closes every verse with this simple declaration: “I got your name on the prayer list.”

Sung by anyone else, such a ploy would seem routine gospel showbiz. But Williams shares her “Prayer List” in a way that’s believable, even reassuring. She mentions the scourges diabetes and AIDS with a shiver. (In the case of diabetes, she had some personal experience: Williams’s mother lost both legs to the disease.) Still, when Williams comes to the part about praying, there’s peace in the valley. She sounds like she knows that if she prays, something is gonna happen.

That quality of unshakable faith is present in Williams’s best recordings—which include notable works as part of Clara Ward Singers. This one, which finds her in front of a small ensemble, is notable for the song selection: In addition to tearing up gospel standbys like “O Happy Day” and “Working on a Building,” Williams does a breathtaking tempoless version of “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” followed by an impassioned reworking of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”

In truth, it really doesn’t matter whether Williams sings a prayer list or a grocery list. Seconds after she drops one of those blistering ad-libs, the music roars to life, and suddenly long-shot miracles don’t seem so unlikely anymore.

GENRE: Gospel.
RELEASED: 1991, SpiritFeel/Shanachie.
KEY TRACKS: “O Happy Day,” “Prayer List,” “If You See My Savior,” “Working on a Building.”
FYI: Little Richard once acknowledged that his signature “Whoooo” was inspired by Marion Williams.