Years before Mahalia Jackson became the iconic face of American gospel music, the most popular gospel artist in the country was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Johnny Cash and Little Richard named her as their favorite singer. A young Mavis Staples asked her father for guitar lessons after hearing Tharpe play. As both ebullient performer and energetically rhythmic guitarist, Tharpe inspired Cash, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Tina Turner, among numerous others.
Despite her long-established influence on gospel, jazz, R&B and rock, Tharpe has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Playwright Cheryl L. West incorporates that circumstance into her script for “Shout, Sister, Shout!” Created by West and director Randy Johnson, the musical opens Wednesday at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“We didn’t want to tell a typical cradle-to-grave bio musical,” West explains. “So there’s an invention of another character, and sort of a fantasy of how she comes to him in his pursuit of eventually trying to get her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Funny and free-spirited, Tharpe started out as a 4-year-old prodigy belting spirituals alongside her mandolin-playing mother on the Southern tent revival circuit. She eventually upended convention — and launched her career — with rollicking gospel songs that were a spirit-lifting contrast to the staid, somber hymns that typified the genre at the time. She scandalized conservative church fans with her use of blues chords and jazz bands, and by playing in nightclubs and taking her gospel onto the pop charts in the 1930s and ’40s — a “crossover artist” long before the term entered music industry parlance. West addresses those events within the play’s nonlinear structure. She also incorporates the resilient entertainer’s 1938 Cotton Club debut, her marriages, evolution as an artist and businesswoman, and grinding tours across the South when Jim Crow ruled.
“She was a life force,” West says. “She traveled through Europe. She was the first black woman to have her own bus to travel in, with her name on it, a very fancy bus. Because a lot of times she would travel places in America where she could not sleep.”
Actress Tracy Nicole Chapman, who portrays Tharpe, was impressed by her compassion and good humor. She was surprised to learn that the Arkansas native had been a child prodigy with “entertainment in her blood.”
“My daughter’s 6, my son is 8, and I just imagine in those days traveling, if I took my daughter out on the road, what that would be like,” she says with a laugh. “I think that is what made her fearless in everything that she did. She was definitely not a pushover. I think experiencing that world at such a young age built up her confidence. I don’t think she was a hard woman at all. She was a trailblazer.
“If you remember the hoopla when Dylan switched to electric [laughs], she was doing it before that. She influenced so many people with her own style, and she was self-taught. She was unafraid to try new things and experiment, and come up with her own unique way of interpreting music.”
Unlike West, who learned about Tharpe from Gayle Wald’s 2007 biography, “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” Chapman had been familiar with her music since she first started playing guitar.
“Tracy Chapman was pretty prominent at that time, and I started to go back and research other African-American guitarists: Joan Armatrading, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta,” she recalls before heading into her first rehearsal with the show’s full band. “One thing I’ve learned is that she ‘played like a man,’ which doesn’t mean much these days, because women and men play the same, pretty much. But she was a hard strummer and her fingerpicking was so precise. She was an anomaly, for sure.”
Many staples of Tharpe’s repertoire are now standards, including “Didn’t It Rain,” “Down By the Riverside,” “Rock Me,” “Shout, Sister, Shout,” “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” “This Train” and “Up Above My Head.” The diversity of her music requires Chapman, who is onstage most of the time, to use “every single part” of her voice as she switches from gospel to rock to musical theatre numbers. One song is a duet with Yvette Cason, who previously portrayed Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone in the Playhouse production of “One Night With Janis Joplin”; she appears in “Shout” as Mahalia Jackson.
For all her tenacity and acclaim, Tharpe died too poor to afford a gravestone in 1973, after suffering a stroke. She was only 56. Funds were raised for her marker in Philadelphia in 2008, a year after she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2011, director Mick Csaky made the documentary “The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” which has since aired on BBC and PBS.
“She was way before her time, and faced all these different obstacles, but she never gave up,” West observes. “She took a lot of heat for doing secular music when she had come out of a Pentecostal background; she struggled with that decision, and eventually went back into the church pretty much totally. Eventually she had some medical issues, and her leg was amputated, yet she still performed and hopped onstage on one leg.
“There was a lot of judgment against her, but she just loved music. She could rock with music. There was a cost to that, yet she never gave up.”
“Shout, Sister, Shout!” opens at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, at
8 p.m. Wednesday and runs through Aug. 20; $39-$131. Info: (626) 356-7529. pasadenaplayhouse.org/shoutsistershout