Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chorlton’s Rock’n’Roll History

Sister Rosetta, pioneer of rock'n'roll

BBC4 continues to put out some of the best music programmes on any channel. But last Friday’s offering, ‘Godmother of Rock’n’Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’ was one of the all-time greats.

Sister Rosetta, who started as a 1930s Gospel singer from the USA’s deep South, graduated by way of nightclub singing at the Cotton Club and touring work as a jazz, blues and gospel soloist, to being a pioneer of Rock’n’Roll and one of the all-time great figures. yet she’s been almost forgotten.

Listening to her wonderfully percussive guitar style you could hear at once how much Chuck Berry learned from her; and the archive footage of her hugely energetic performances, full of movement, power and infectious delight, made it quite clear that she was a – if not the – key figure in the transition from Black gospel music to Rock. Popular music history needs to be rewritten to put this lady at the centre!

But the most amazing thing for me was to learn that, when her career (like that of many blues musicians in the US) had stalled in the early ’60s, she was invited to the UK by Chris Barber of all people – and that Granada TV invited her to perform at the disused Chorlton-cum-Hardy railway station about five minutes from where I live in Manchester. Just take a look at the clips! And more important, listen!

The rationale was something to do with freight trains and all that – the vague mythology of train tracks and the Blues. Whatever. Granada decked the old station out as a kind of Wild West scene, with a fake ‘Chorltonville’ sign which they must have thought sounded American. They put the band on one platform and the audience on the other, and delivered Sister Rosetta in a horse-drawn carriage. The horse is a typical piebald cob – a ‘gypsy horse’ of the kind you can see by the hundred at Appleby Fair every year. Her affection for the horse is typical of this immensely sweet and loving woman who seems to radiate kindness and warmth with every ounce of her being. Good to know, then, that the UK tour put Sister Rosetta back on the map and she remained a big star in Europe at least until her death.

We all knew Chorlton was special (Quentin Crisp died here, Badly Drawn Boy lives here, and of course it’s full of wonderful creative people) – but now we know it has a place in Rock’n’Roll history too. The station is about to reopen as a Metrolink stop. Maybe there ought to be a blue plaque on that platform.

17 comments to “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chorlton’s Rock’n’Roll History”

  • Y.A Rakha

    18.01.11

    I know both places and never experienced the closest cultural or racial connection except that both are seaports and had an abundance of all types of people. N.England was predominantly white and “English”. The Big Easy was predominantly southern American Black. I dug people for their differences, not how I’d like them to be similar. People as human beings are all the same in that they care about the same things:we all bleed the same, our loved ones, family,our cherished traditions, etc. I appreciate folks for what they are and how they act towards me, a stranger and a foreigner in their midst.

  • Ben

    18.01.11

    Thank you for bringing this wonderful woman to my attention!

    I like to think I have a reasonable understanding of the history of rock’n’roll but I had never heard of her before.

    There’s definitely a few licks in there that just shout Chuck Berry. Do you know if they had much contact?

    Cheers,
    Ben

  • gizmo

    18.01.11

    It’s not easy to get white folks to clap on the backbeat. Yeah, Sister !

  • Anthony Francis

    18.01.11

    Does anyone out there know what became of a singer I knew back in 1960
    in Germany? Her name was Elkie Bookbinder. She was from Manchester. She sang under the name,
    Eliane Mansfield. She was a real talent……..She sang with the Erick Delaney big
    band. If you have any information, please contact me…..

    Thanks,

    Tony Francis

  • rasulsiddik

    18.01.11

    This Is A Beautiful tribute to one of our unsung heroe’s as are so Many on Jazz on the Tube Videos. Thank you So Much for keeping all of We Jazz Lovers Informed & educated on the MANY! Forms Of Evolution This music has Taken since It’s Beginings, From The Field Holla’s During Slavery, till NOW!! Keep The Fire Burning!! Peace& Love , Rasul Siddik,( Trumpet ,Percussion &other Various Insruments)

  • Eric Brierley

    03.02.11

    From jazz/blues trombone player/singer in M/c since 1954.
    I did not know about the Chorlton event in advance but saw the package in concert and on the night of Chorlton was awakened by a phone-call. “Eric I’m in the Bossa Nova Club (near the cathedral at the time) the touring blues package has just walked in and the guys are jamming”. Predictably I told him to stop taking the piss and bollocked him for waking me up. Having overcome disbelief,I drove down and had an unforgetable night till about 5 in the morning listening and talking to, buying drinks for and worshipping my heros-not S Rosetta though, maybe she wasn’t a clubber.
    The resident trio was piano, bass and drums so while the singing and harmonica playing was amplified as normal, the guitar playing was on acoustic on instruments they happened to have on the coach which, in itself was interesting.
    What a Night!
    Eric Brierley.

  • Keith Tanner

    04.02.11

    I saw the BBC4 program and was mortified that although Chorlton is only on the opposite side of the R Mersey from where I live I had never known about the performance. It was a quirky concept but it worked, well with that kind of music it could not fail
    I only began to collect Rosetta Tharpe records within the last 10yrs although I had heard some of her music with Chris Barber.

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    Thanks Rasul – sorry it’s taken me so long to catch up with your cvomment but it’s much appreciated!

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    Many thanks for sharing this memory, and please see above for the possible 50th anniversary event!

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    Thanks for the response, and you may like to know that a body of people round here are talking about organising a 50th anniversary concert at the remnants of the old station in 2014! I was wrong by the way about the location: it was the old station, now just some brickwork left, at the end of Athol Road on boundary of Choalton/Whalley Range.

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    Thank you and glad you enjoyed it. Yes, she should be much better known: someone who changed music history! And communicated so much joy in the process.

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    Sadly I don’t know of her. Let’s hope someone gets in touch: maybe she performed under yet another name?

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    Think that’s hard, you should try geting them to clap on clave in Cuban music…

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    I don’t know about that, but you’re right about the Chuck Berry technique. or rather Berry using the Tharpe technique! He must have heard her records and probably seen her because she was very very big just before he was! Maybe the books about her would give the answer.

  • Gordon Howe

    01.01.12

    In reply to Anthony Francis’s comment above, I’m not sure how to reply directly to him, Elkie (Elaine)Bookbinder later became the very famous Elkie Brookes.
    Hope he recieved this message!

  • Carol

    15.02.14

    Do you know if there’s any vinyl/CD recording of this Rosetta Tharpe railway station gig?

  • Richard Haynes

    09.05.16

    Thank you so much for the video and the whole site. I was there – we lived on Withington Road
    I could not believe ears when I heard this music I was up on a railway bridge looking down. Muddy Waters was good but I think Rosetta Tharpe was the best. We named a Yorkshire Terrier ‘Rosetta’ after the great lady. Thank you again Chorlton was and continues to be a very special place

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