American Masters Launches Season 27 with
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll
Premiering Friday, February 22nd at 8pm on WTVP-HD
– New documentary celebrates unsung gospel guitar hero in honor of Black History Month –
opens its 27th season with the story of African-American gospel singer and guitar virtuoso Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973). One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Tharpe may not be
a household name today, but the flamboyant superstar, with her spectacular playing on the newly electrified
guitar, played a pivotal role in the creation of rock ’n’ roll. Emmy®-winning filmmaker Mick Csáky uncovers her
life, music and lasting influence in American MastersSister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll,
premiering Friday, February 22 at 8 p.m. on WTVP-HD in honor of Black History Month.
Southern-born, Chicago-raised and New York-made, Sister Rosetta rose from poverty to become
one of the world’s most popular gospel singers and the first to cross over successfully into mainstream
popular music. She introduced the spiritual passion of gospel into the secular world of rock ’n’ roll,
inspiring some of its greatest stars, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.
A natural-born performer and a rebel, “She could play the guitar like nobody else … nobody!” says Lottie
Henry, a member of Tharpe’s back-up vocal group The Rosettes. “Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe,” attests Gordon
Stoker of The Jordanaires, who performed with both Sister Rosetta and Elvis. “Not only did he dig her guitar
playing but he dug her singing too.”
The child of poor cotton pickers, Sister Rosetta was born in Cotton Plant, Ark. At the age
of six, she was taken by her evangelist mother Katie Bell to Chicago to join the Church of God in Christ, where
she developed her distinctive performing style. In 1938, at the age of 23, she briefly left the church for
show business, causing huge controversy when she performed songs laden with sexual innuendo in New York City
venues such as the famed Cotton Club and Café Society, where she immediately became a favorite of both Cab
Calloway and Duke Ellington. However, Sister Rosetta soon returned to her gospel roots and performed in packed
churches and theatres throughout America and Europe, becoming one of America’s most distinctive recording stars
on radio and television during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
American Masters Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll features
archival performances and new interviews with Joe Boyd, tour manager of the 1964 American Folk, Blues and Gospel
Caravan; Howard Carol of gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, which toured frequently with Tharpe; Anthony
Heilbut, gospel record producer and writer; life-long friend Roxie Moore; Ira Tucker, Jr., son of The Dixie
Hummingbirds’ Ira Tucker, Sr.; Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald; and others.
“I like to call Sister Rosetta Tharpe ‘The Godmother of Rock & Roll’ because of the huge
influence she has had on so many popular musicians during the past 70 years — from Elvis, Johnny Cash and
Etta James to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Tom Jones, and Eric Clapton, through to the present,” said Csáky,
whose past films for American Masters include Bob Marley: Rebel Music (2001), which he executive
produced, and Plácido Domingo: A Musical Life (1995), which he produced and directed.
“It is my great pleasure to present this British-made film about such a uniquely American
woman. Sister Rosetta is unfortunately not known to many of us now, but we have all benefited from her gifts
in the music she so deeply influenced,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters.
Since its 1986 premiere, American Masters has earned 24 Emmy Awards — including eight
for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series since 1999 and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — the 2012 Producers
Guild Award, 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, and three Grammys. Now in its 27th season on PBS, the series is a production
of THIRTEEN. WNET is the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations, and operator
of NJTV. For 50 years, THIRTEEN has been making the most of the rich resources and passionate people of New York
and the world, reaching millions of people with on-air and online programming that celebrates arts and culture,
offers insightful commentary on the news of the day, explores the worlds of science and nature, and invites
students of all ages to have fun while learning.
To take American Masters beyond the television broadcast and further explore the
themes, stories and personalities of masters past and present, the companion website
offers streaming video of select films, interviews, essays, photographs, outtakes, and other resources.
American MastersSister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll
is a production of Antelope South. A presentation of American Masters for THIRTEEN. Mick Csáky is
writer, producer, and director. Tom Herington is editor. Gayle Wald is editorial consultant and Michael
Miles is cameraman. Pauline Black is narrator. Susan Lacy is American Masters series creator and executive
American Masters is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the Arts
and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by Rosalind P. Walter, Anne Ray
Charitable Trust, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rolf and Elizabeth
Rosenthal, Jack Rudin, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, and
public television viewers.
In 2013, WNET is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of THIRTEEN, New York’s flagship public media provider.
As the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, WNET brings quality arts, education and
public affairs programming to over 5 million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS
series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Need to Know, Charlie
Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings available on
air and online. Pioneers in educational programming, WNET has created such groundbreaking series as Get the
Math, Oh Noah! and Cyberchase and provides tools for educators that bring compelling content
to life in the classroom and at home. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities
through NYC-ARTS, Reel 13, NJ Today and MetroFocus, the multi-platform news magazine
focusing on the New York region.
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