A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

Episode 7: Wynonie Harris and “Good Rockin’ Tonight”


A photo of Wynonie Harris

Welcome to episode seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Wynonie Harris and "Good Rockin' Tonight"


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

All the music I talk about here is now in the public domain, and there are a lot of good cheap compilations available. This four-CD set of Wynonie Harris is probably the definitive one. This two-CD set of Roy Brown material has all his big hits, as well as the magnificently disturbing "Butcher Pete Parts 1 & 2", my personal favourite of his. Lucky Millinder isn't as well served by compilations, but this one has all the songs I talk about here, plus a couple I talked about in the Sister Rosetta Tharpe episode.

There is only one biography of Wynonie Harris that I know of -- Rock Mr Blues by Tony Collins -- and that is out of print, though you can pick up expensive second-hand copies here.

Some of the information on Lucky Millinder comes from Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, which I also used for the episode on Rosetta Tharpe.

There are articles on Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and Cecil Gant in Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches. This book is considered a classic, and will probably be of interest to anyone who finds this episode and the next few interesting, but a word of caution -- it was written in the 70s, and Tosches is clearly of the Lester Bangs/underground/gonzo school of rock journalism, which in modern terms means he's a bit of an edgelord who'll be needlessly offensive to get a laugh. The quotes from Harris I use here are from an article in Tan magazine, which Tosches quotes.

Before Elvis, a book I've mentioned many times before, covers all the artists I talk about here.

And again, archive.org's collection of digitised 78 records was very useful.

Patreon Admin Note

I have updated the details on my Patreon to better reflect the fact that it backs this podcast as well as my other work, and to offer podcast-related rewards. I'll be doing ebooks for Patreons based on the scripts for the podcasts (the first of those, Savoy Stompers and Kings of Swing should be up in a week or so), and if the Patreon hits $500 a month I'll start doing monthly bonus episodes for backers only. Those episodes won't be needed to follow the story in the main show, but I think they'd be fun to do. To find out more, check out my Patreon.



There's a comic called Phonogram, and in it there are people called "phonomancers". These are people who aren't musicians, but who can tap into the power of music other people have made, and use it to do magic.
I think "phonomancers" is actually a very useful concept for dealing with the real world as well. There are people in the music industry who don't themselves play an instrument or sing or any of the normal musician things, but who manage to get great records made -- records which are their creative work -- by moulding and shaping the work of others. Sometimes they're record producers, sometimes they're managers, sometimes they're DJs or journalists. But there are a lot of people out there who've shaped music enormously without being musicians in the normal sense. Brian Eno, Sam Phillips, Joe Meek, Phil Spector, Malcolm McLaren, Simon Napier-Bell... I'm sure you can add more to the list yourself. People -- almost always men, to be honest -- who have a vision, and a flair for self-publicity, and an idea of how to get musicians to turn that idea into a reality. Men who have the power to take some spotty teenager with a guitar and turn him into a god, at least for the course of a three minute pop song.
And there have always been spaces in the music industry for this sort of person. And in the thirties and forties, that place was often in front of the band.
Most of the big band leaders we remember now were themselves excellent musicians -- Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, you could put those people up against most others on their instruments. They might not have been the best, but they could hold their own.
But plenty of other band leaders were mediocre musicians or couldn't play at all. Glenn Miller was a competent enough trombone player, but no-one listens to the Glenn Miller band and thinks "wow, one of those four trombone players is fantastic!" And other band leaders were much less involved in the music. Kay Kyser -- the most successful bandleader of the period, who had eleven number one records and thirty-five in the top ten -- never played an instrument, didn't write songs, didn't sing. He acted as onstage MC, told jokes, and was the man at the front of the stage. And there were many other bandleaders like that -- people who didn't have any active involvement in the music they were credited with. Bob Crosby, Bing's brother, for example, was a bandleader and would sing on some tracks, but his band performed plenty of instrumentals without him having anything to do with them. 
Most non-playing bandleaders would sing, like Bob Crosby, but even then they often did so rarely. And yet some of them had an immense influence on the music world.
Because a good bandleader's talent wasn't in playing an instrument or writing songs. It was having an idea for a sound, and getting together the right people who could make that sound, and creating a work environment in which they could make that sound well. It was a management role, or an editorial one. But those roles can be important. And one of the most important people to do that job was Lucky Millinder, who we've talked about a couple of times already in passing.
Lucky Millinder is a largely forgotten figure now, but he was one of the most important figures in black music in the 1940s. He was a fascinating figure -- one story about how he got his name is that Al Capone was down ten thousand dollars playing dice, Millinder offered to rub the dice for luck, and Capone ended the night fifty thousand dollars up and called him Lucky from then on.
(I think it's more likely that Lucky was short for his birth name, Lucius, but I think the story shows the kind of people Millinder was hanging around with).
He didn't play an instrument or read music or sing much. What Millinder could definitely do was recognise talent. He'd worked with Bill Doggett, before Doggett went off to join the Ink Spots' backing band, and the trumpet player on his first hit was Dizzy Gillespie, who Millinder had hired after Gillespie had been sacked from Cab Calloway's band after stabbing Calloway in the leg. He had Rosetta Tharpe as his female singer at the beginning of the forties, and Ruth Brown -- who we'll talk about later -- later on.
He'd started out as the leader of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, the house band in the Cotton Club, before moving on to lead, as his own band, one of the main bands in residence at the Savoy, along with occasionally touring the chitlin circuit -- the rather derogatory name for the clubs and theatres that were regular tour stops for almost all major black artists at the time.
Slowly, during the 1940s, Millinder transitioned his band from the kind of swing music that had been popular in the thirties, to the jump band style that was becoming more popular. And if you want to point to one band that you can call the first rhythm and blues band, you probably want to look at Millinder's band, who more than any other band of the era were able to combine all the boogie, jump, and jive sounds with a strong blues feeling and get people dancing. Listen, for example, to "Savoy" from 1943:
[Excerpt: "Savoy" by Lucky Millinder]
In 1944, after Rosetta Tharpe had left his band, Millinder needed a new second singer, to take the occasional lead as Tharpe had. And he found one -- one who later became the most successful rhythm and blues artist of the late 1940s. Wynonie Harris.
Harris was already known as "Mr. Blues" when Millinder first saw him playing in Chicago and invited him to join the band. He was primarily a blues shouter, inspired by people like Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, but he could also perform in a subtler style, close to the jive singing of a Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan.
Harris joined the Millinder band and started performing with them in their residency at the Savoy. Shortly after this, the band went into the studio to record "Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?"
[excerpt "Who Threw The Whiskey in the Well?"]
You'll note that that song has a backbeat. One of the things we talked about right back in episode two was that the combination of the backbeat and the boogie bass is what really makes rock and roll, and we're now getting to the point that that combination was turning up more and more.
That was recorded in May 1944, almost straight after the end of the musicians union strike, but it wasn't released straight away. Records, at that time, were released on discs made out of shellac, which is a resin made from insect secretions. Unfortunately, the insects in question were native to Vietnam, which was occupied by Japan, and India, which was going through its own problems at the time, so shellac was strictly rationed. There was a new product, vinylite, being made which seemed promising for making records, but that was also used for lifejackets, which were obviously given a higher priority during a war than making records was. So the record wasn't released until nearly a year after it was recorded. And during that time, Wynonie Harris had become a much more important part of Millinder's band, and was starting to believe that maybe he deserved a bit more credit.
Harris, you see, was an absolutely astonishing stage presence. Lots of people who spoke about Elvis Presley in later years said that his performances, hip thrusts and leg shaking and all, were just a watered-down version of what Wynonie Harris had been doing. Harris thought of himself as a big star straight away,
This belief was made stronger when "Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well" was finally released. It became a massive hit, and the only money Harris saw from it was a flat $37.50 session fee. Millinder, on the other hand, was getting the royalties. Harris decided that it was his vocal, not anything to do with the rest of the band, that had made the record a success, and that he could make more money on his own.
(In case you hadn't realised, yet, Wynonie Harris was never known as the most self-effacing of people, and that confidence gave him a huge amount of success on stage, but didn't win him many friends in his personal life).
Harris went solo, and Lucky Millinder replaced him with a trumpet player and singer called Henry Glover. Harris started making records for various small labels.
His first record as a solo artist was "Around the Clock Blues", one of the most influential records ever made:
[Excerpt "Around the Clock Blues" by Wynonie Harris]
If that sounds familiar, maybe it's because you've heard this song by Arthur Crudup that Elvis later covered:
[excerpt of "So Glad You're Mine" by Arthur Crudup, showing it's more or less identical]
Or maybe you know "Reelin' and Rockin'" by Chuck Berry...
[excerpt of "Reelin' and Rockin'" by Chuck Berry, showing it's also more or less identical]
And of course there was another song with "Around the Clock" in the title, and we'll get to that pretty soon...
The band on "Around the Clock", incidentally, was led by a session drummer called Johnny Otis.
That record, in fact, is one of the milestones in the development of rock and roll. And yet it's not the most important record Wynonie Harris made in the late 1940s.
Harris recorded for many labels over the next couple of years, including King Records, whose A&R man Ralph Bass we'll also be hearing more about, and Bullet Records, whose founder Jim Bulleit went on to bigger things as well. And just as a brief diversion, we'll take a listen to one of the singles he made around this time, "Dig this Boogie":
[excerpt "Dig This Boogie", Wynonie Harris]
I played that just because of the pianist on that record -- Herman "Sonny" Blount later became rather better known as Sun Ra, and while he didn't have enough to do with rock music for me to do an episode on him, I had to include him here when I could.
Wynonie Harris became a big star within the world of rhythm and blues, and that was in large part because of the extremely sexual performances he put on, and the way he aimed them at women, not at the young girls many other singers would target. As he said himself, the reason he was making fifteen hundred dollars a week when most famous singers were getting fifty or seventy-five dollars a night was
"The crooners star on the Great White Way and get swamped with Coca-Cola-drinking bobby-soxers and other 'jail bait'. I star in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri and get those who have money to buy stronger stuff and my records to play while they drink it. I like to sing to women with meat on their bones and that long green stuff in their pocketbook".
And he certainly made enough of that long green stuff, but he spent it just as fast as he made it. When he got a ten thousand dollar royalty cheque, he bought himself two Cadillacs and hired two chauffeurs, and every night at the end of his show they'd both arrive at the venue and he'd pick which one he was riding home in that night.
Now, having talked about Wynonie Harris for a little bit, let's pause for a moment and talk about one of his fans. Roy Brown was a big fan of Harris, and was a blues singer himself, in something like the same style. Brown had originally been hired as "a black singer who sounds white", which is odd because he used a lot of melisma in his vocals, which was normally a characteristic of black singing. But other than that, Brown's main vocal influences when he started were people like Bing Crosby and other crooners, rather than blues music. 
However, he soon became very fond of jump blues, and started writing songs in the style himself. In particular, one, called "Good Rockin' Tonight", he thought might be popular with other audiences, since it always went down so well in his own shows. Indeed, he thought it might be suitable for Wynonie Harris -- and when Harris came to town, Brown suggested the song to him.
And Harris wasn't interested. But after Brown moved back to New Orleans from Galveston, Texas, where he'd been performing -- there was a girl, and a club owner, and these things happen and sometimes you have to move --  Brown took his song to Cecil Gant instead. Gant was another blues singer, and if Harris wasn't up for recording the song, maybe Gant would be. 
Cecil Gant was riding high off his biggest hit, "I Wonder", which was a ballad, and he might have seemed a strange choice to record "Good Rockin' Tonight", but while Gant's A-sides were ballads, his B-sides were boogie rockers, and very much in the style of Brown's song -- like this one, the B-side to "I Wonder"
[excerpt "Cecil Boogie" by Cecil Gant]
But Gant wasn't the best person for Brown to ask to record a song. According to Jim Bulleit, who produced Gant's records, everything Gant recorded was improvised in one take, and he could never remember what it was he'd just done, and could never repeat a song. So Gant wasn't really in the market for other people's songs.
But he was so impressed by Brown's singing, as well as his song, that he phoned the head of his record company, at 2:30AM, and got Brown to sing down the phone. After hearing the song, the record company head asked to hear it a second time. And then he told Gant "give him fifty dollars and don't let him out of your sight!"
And so Roy Brown ended up recording his song, on Deluxe Records, and having a minor hit with it:
[excerpt "Good Rocking Tonight" by Roy Brown]
When you listen back to that, now, it doesn't sound all that innovative at all. In fact it wears its influences on its sleeve so much that it namechecks Sweet Lorraine, Sioux City Sue, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Caldonia, all of whom were characters who'd appeared in other popular R&B songs around that time -- we talked about Caldonia, in fact, in the episode about "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and Louis Jordan.
It might also sound odd to anyone who's familiar with later cover versions by Elvis Presley, or by Paul McCartney and others who followed the pattern of Elvis' version. Brown only sings the opening line once, before singing "I'm gonna hold my baby as tight as I can". Those other versions restructure the song into a fairly conventional sixteen-bar blues form by adding in a repeat of the first line and a chord change along with it. Roy Brown's original, on the other hand, just holds the first chord, and keeps playing the same riff, for almost the entire verse and chorus -- the chord changes are closer to passing chords than to anything else, and the song ends up having some of the one-chord feel that people like John Lee Hooker had, where the groove is all and harmonic change is thrown out of the window. Even though you'd think, from the melody line, that it was a twelve-bar blues, it's something altogether different.
This is something that you need to realise -- the more chords something has, in general, the harder it is to dance to. And there will always, always, be a tension between music that's all about the rhythm, and which is there for you to dance to, and music which is all about the melody line, and which treats harmonic interest as an excuse to write more interesting melodies. You can either be Burt Bacharach or you can be Bo Diddley, and the closer you get to one, the further you get from the other. And on that spectrum, "Good Rockin' Tonight" is absolutely in the Diddley corner.
But at the time, this was an absolutely phenomenal record, and it immediately started to take off in the New Orleans market.
And then Wynonie Harris realised that maybe he'd made a mistake. Maybe he should have recorded that song after all. And so he did -- cutting his own, almost identical, cover version of Brown's song:
[excerpt from "Good Rocking Tonight" by Wynonie Harris]
There are a few differences between the two, of course. In particular, Harris introduced those "hoy hoy" vocals we just heard, which weren't part of Roy Brown's original. That's a line which comes from "The Honeydripper", another massively important R&B record.  Harris also included a different instrumental introduction -- playing "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" at the start, a song whose melody bears a slight resemblance to Brown's song. 
Harris also adds that backbeat again, and it's for that reason that Wynonie Harris' version of the song, not Roy Brown's original, is the one that people call "the first rock and roll record". 
Other than those changes, Harris' version is a carbon copy of Roy Brown's version. Except, of course, that Wynonie Harris was one of the biggest stars in R&B, while Roy Brown was an unknown who'd just released his first single. That makes a lot of difference, and Harris had the big hit with the song.
And "Good Rocking Tonight", in Harris' version, became one of those records that was *everywhere*. Roy Brown's version of the song made number thirteen on the R&B charts, and two years later it would re-enter the charts and go to number eleven – but Harris' was a world-changing hit, at least in the R&B market.
Harris' version, in fact, started off a whole chain of soundalikes and cash-ins, records that were trying to be their own version of "Good Rockin' Tonight". Harris himself recorded a sequel, "All She Wants to Do is Rock", but for the next two years everyone was recording songs with “rock” in the title.  There was Roy Brown's own sequel, "Rockin' at Midnight":
[Excerpt "Rockin' at Midnight" by Roy Brown]
There was Cecil Gant's "We're Gonna Rock"
There was "Rock the Joint" by Jimmy Preston
From 1948 through about 1951, if you listened to rhythm and blues records at all you couldn't escape this new rock craze. Record after record with "rock" in the title, with a boogie woogie bassline, with a backbeat, and with someone singing about how they were going to rock and roll. 
This was, in fact, the real start of the rock and roll music fad. We're still six years away from it coming to the notice of the white mainstream audience, but all the pieces are there together, and while we're still three years away even from the canonical "first rock and roll record", Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88", 1948 is when rock and roll first became a cohesive, unified, whole, something that was recognisable and popular, a proper movement in music rather than odd individuals making their own separate music.
Of course, it was still missing some of the ingredients that would later be added. First-wave rock and roll is a music that's based on the piano and horn sections rather than guitars, and it wouldn't be until it merged with hillbilly boogie in the early fifties that the electric guitar started to be an important instrument in it. But... we've talked before and will talk again about how there's no real "first rock and roll record", but if you insist on looking for one then "Good Rocking Tonight" is as good a candidate as any.
Neither of its creators did especially well from the rock and roll craze they initiated though. Roy Brown got a reputation for being difficult after he went to the musicians' union to try to get some of the money the record company owed him -- in the 1950s, as today, record companies thought it was unreasonable for musicians and singers to actually want them to pay the money that was written in their contract -- and so after a period of success in the late forties and very early fifties he spent a couple of decades unable to get a hit. He eventually started selling encyclopaedias door to door -- with the unique gimmick that when he was in black neighbourhoods he could offer the people whose doors he was knocking on an autographed photo of himself. He sold a lot of encyclopaedias that way, apparently. He continued making the occasional great R&B record, but he made more money from sales. He died in 1981.
Wynonie Harris wasn't even that lucky. He basically stopped having hits by 1953, and he more or less gave up performing by the early sixties. The new bands couldn't play his kind of boogie, and in his last few performances, by all accounts, he cut a sad and pitiful figure. He died in 1969 after more or less drinking himself to death.
The music business is never friendly towards originals, especially black originals. But we're now finally into the rock era. We'll be looking over the next few weeks at a few more "first rock and roll songs" as well as at some music that still doesn't quite count as rock but was influential on it, but if you've ever listened to a rock and roll record and enjoyed it, a tiny part of the pleasure you got you owe to Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris.

Episode 6: The Ink Spots — That’s When Your Heartaches Begin


The Ink Spots: Left to right -- Bill Kenny, Deke Watson, Hoppy Jones, Charlie Fuqua


Welcome to episode six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at the Ink Spots and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. Unfortunately, listeners in the US may not be able to access this one -- Mixcloud doesn't allow USians to listen to streams when they have more than four songs in a row by the same artists, due to copyright restrictions (and it isn't set up to realise that in this case, all the music is in the public domain so those restrictions don't apply). I apologise for that, but it's rather out of my hands.

All the Ink Spots' music is now in the public domain, so there are a lot of compilations available. This one is dirt cheap, has decent sound quality, and has all the essential hits on it.

More than Words Can Say by Marv Goldberg is the definitive Ink Spots biography, but sadly it came out through an academic publisher and is thus grossly overpriced. You can buy it here, should you choose. Goldberg's website is also an invaluable source of information, not just about the Ink Spots but about forties and fifties vocal groups, and R&B.

Inkspots.ca  is a wonderful resource for detail about the band's career.

Before Elvisa book I've mentioned many times before, has a reasonable amount about the Ink Spots in it, as well as about almost all the other pre-1954 artists I'm covering here.

A resource I should have mentioned earlier, but one that's useful for all the pre-1952 music, is archive.org's collection of digitised 78 records. I'm using this a lot.

And finally, Deke Watson's autobiography is currently only available on the Kindle. It's credited there as by "Shirlita Bolton", but that's actually the name of Deke's widow, who owns the rights to the book -- it's definitely Deke's autobiography. It's very short, only seventy-three pages, and it's full of inaccuracies, but it's still the only autobiography any of the real Ink Spots wrote, and it's very cheap.


At one point, talking about "top and bottom", I say "they first did it in the studio". I don't mean, there, that the first time they performed in this style was in the studio, but that this was the first time they tried something in the studio that they'd already done live. The way I say it makes it sound more ambiguous than I intended...


OK, so we've covered the Carnegie Hall concerts of 1938 and 39 and the performers around them quite exhaustively now -- we had a bit of a diversion into Western Swing, but mostly we've stayed around there.
Now, we're still looking at New York in the late 1930s and early forties, but we're moving away from those shows, and we're going to look at the most popular vocal group of the era, and possibly the most important vocal group of all time.
We've talked over the last few weeks about almost all the major elements of what we now think of as rock and roll -- the backbeat, the arrangements that focus on a rhythm section, the riffs, the electric guitar and the amplification generally. We've seen, quite clearly, how most of these elements were being pulled together, in different proportions and by different people, in the late 1930s, almost but not quite coalescing into what we now call rock and roll.
There's one aspect which might be quite easy to overlook, though, which we've not covered yet, and that's the vocal group. Vocal harmonies have become much less prominent in rock music in the last forty years or so, and so today they might not be thought of as an essential element of the genre, but vocal groups played a massive role in the fifties and sixties, and were a huge element of the stew of genres that made up rock and roll when it started.
And the vocal group that had the most influence on the groups that became rock and roll was a band whose basis was not as a vocal group, but in coffee pot groups.
Coffee-pot groups were groups of poor black teenagers, who performed on street corners and tried to reproduce the sounds of the lush records they heard on the radio, using... well, using the equipment they had to hand. For string parts, you'd play ukuleles or guitars or banjos, but for the horns you'd play the kazoo. But of course, kazoos were not particularly pleasant instruments, and they certainly didn't sound much like a saxophone or clarinet. But it turned out you could make them sound a lot more impressive than they otherwise would if you blew them into something that resonated. Different sizes of container would resonate differently, and so you could get a pretty fair approximation of a horn section by having a teapot, a small coffee pot, and a large coffee pot, and having three of your band members play kazoos into them. The large coffee pot you could also pass around to the crowd afterward, to collect the money in -- though, as Deek Watson said about his coffee-pot group the Percolating Puppies "all of us had to keep our eyes on the cat who passed the collection for the evening, or else some of the money found its way from the pot to his pocket before dividing time arrived".
Other instrumental parts, of course, would be replaced with simple mouth noises. You can make quite an impressive collection of instrumental sounds with just your voice, if you try hard enough. 
The Ink Spots formed out of people who'd started their careers in these groups -- Charlie Fuqua (pron. Foo-kway, and yes I have checked) was in one with Jerry Daniels before they became the imaginatively-named duo "Charlie and Jerry", while Deek Watson was in another. Those three, plus Hoppy Jones, performed in a variety of combinations under a variety of names before they settled on calling themselves "King, Jack, and Jester" or sometimes "King, Jack, and Jesters".
In the early years of their career, they actually got themselves a radio show on a local station, where they were a fill-in for another band, the Four Mills Brothers. And the Four Mills Brothers were the people who influenced them the most.
The Mills Brothers had actually started out not so differently from the coffee pot groups -- they entered a talent contest, and John Mills had lost the kazoo he was going to play. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and imitated a trumpet, and the brothers decided that they were going to start imitating brass instruments with their voices. And they got good at it. Listen to this:
[Mills Brothers: "It Don't Mean a Thing"]
There is no instrument on there other than a single acoustic guitar, believe it or not. They're imitating trumpets, a tuba, and a trombone with their voices, and they'd listen to instrumental musicians and copy their voicings. This is something  that a lot of vocal groups have continued to do, but no-one has done it better than the Mills Brothers.
The Mills Brothers became massively successful, and from 1930 through 1939 they were far and away the biggest black act in the US, making multiple appearances on Bing Crosby's radio show, appearing in films, and touring the world. It was the touring the world that caused their eventual downfall -- they went to play the UK in 1939, and discovered that with World War II imminent, the only ship away from the UK they could get at the end of their tour was one that went to Australia. 
Between that massive transport disruption, and then the further disruption caused by the war itself, it took them two years to get back into the US, by which time their popularity had faded somewhat (although they went on to have a massive hit with "Paper Moon" when they got back -- their career was far from over). They carried on having occasional hits into the late sixties, and carried on performing together into the late eighties -- and the last surviving Mills Brother carried on performing until his death in 1999, with one of his sons who carries on the family band to this day. 
But they'd lost their place as the top of the entertainment tree, and they'd lost it to people who'd been imitating them -- to the band we last heard of performing as "King, Jack, and Jesters".
By the mid 1930s, those four men were in New York and performing as the Riff Brothers, but not getting very far. They were doing a mix of Mills Brothers inspired stuff and more jive music, and were earning decent money but not yet massive successes.
In his autobiography, Deek Watson talks about how the Riff Brothers decided to change their name -- there were too many brother and cousin acts for the Riff Brothers to stand out, and the band eventually ended up in their booking agent's office, arguing for hours over what name they should choose and getting nowhere. Finally, as their agent toyed with a pen, a few drops of ink fell out. I'll read the next bit from Watson's book directly:
"To me, it seemed like inspiration. 'That's it!' I shouted. 'How about calling us the Ink Spots?'
The boys really yelled this time. 'There you go again Deek!' Charlie exclaimed. 'That's right!' agreed Hoppy, 'always wanting us to be something colored. Black Dots, Ink Spots, next thing you know he'll be wanting us to call ourselves the Old Black Joes'
They all talked at once. 'Man, you know ain't nobody wants to be no Ink Spot'."
Now, Watson in his book does seem to take credit for absolutely every good idea anyone involved in the band had (and for other things which had nothing to do with them, like writing "Your Feet's Too Big", which was written by Fred Fisher and Ada Benson). He also makes up some quite outrageous lies, like that this original lineup of the Ink Spots played at the coronation of King Edward VIII (anyone who knows anything about inter-war British history will know why that is impossible), but this does have the ring of truth about it. When he was in the Percolating Puppies, Watson used to work under the name "four-dice Rastus", and many early reviews of the Ink Spots criticised him for eye-rolling, hand-waving, and other minstrelly behaviours, which many black reviewers of the time considered brought black people into disrepute. It's entirely possible that his bandmates would be irritated by his emphasis on their race.
That said, I'm not going to criticise Watson for this, or repeat some of the insulting names he was called by other black people. Everyone has a different response to the experience of oppression, and I'm not, as a white man, going to sit here and moralise or pontificate about how black people "should" have behaved in the 1930s. A lot of much better artists than Deke Watson did a lot more to play along with those stereotypes.
Either way, and whatever they thought about it, Charlie Fuqua, Deke Watson, Jerry Daniels and Hoppy Jones became the Ink Spots, and that was the name under which their group would eventually become even more famous than the Mills Brothers.
But there was a problem -- Jerry Daniels, their main jive singer, was getting seriously ill from the stress of the band's performing schedule, and eventually ended up hospitalised. He couldn't continue touring with them, and so for a little while the Four Ink Spots were down to three. They had to change, and in changing their lineup, they became the band that would change music. 
In 1936 Bill Kenny, a twenty-one year old high tenor singer, won an amateur night contest at the Savoy Ballroom. Moe Gale, the Ink Spots' manager, was the co-owner of the Savoy, and Charles Buchanan, the club's manager, knew his boss' band wanted a new singer and suggested Kenny. Kenny was, by any standards, an extraordinary singer, and his vocals would become the defining characteristic of the Ink Spots' records from that point on. When you think of the Ink Spots, it's Kenny's voice you think of. Or at least, it's Kenny and Hoppy Jones.
Because as well as being an utterly astonishing singer, Bill Kenny was an inspired arranger, and he came up with an idea that changed the whole style and sound of the Ink Spots' music, and would later indirectly change all of popular music. The idea he came up with was called "top and bottom".
(Note that Deke Watson also claimed credit for this idea in his autobiography, but the story as he tells it there is inconsistent with the known facts, so I'm happy to believe the consensus view that it was Kenny).
Up until Bill Kenny joined the band, the Ink Spots had been a jive band, performing songs in the style of Cab Calloway or Fats Waller -- they were performing uptempo comedy numbers, and they were doing it very well indeed:
[excerpt of the Ink Spots singing "Your Feet's Too Big"]
When Bill Kenny joined the band, they continued doing the same kind of thing for a while -- still concentrating on uptempo numbers, as you can hear in their 1937 recording of "Swing High, Swing Low". 
[excerpt of "Swing High Swing Low"]
Sometimes in those performances Hoppy Jones would speak-sing a line or two in his bass voice, but it was mostly fairly straightforward vocal group singing. They were still basically doing the Mills Brothers sound. And that was fine, because the Mills Brothers were, after all, the most popular black vocal group ever up to that point. But if they were going to be really big, they needed their own sound, and Bill Kenny came up with it.
He refined the idea of Hoppy's spoken vocals and came up with a hit formula, which they would use over and over again. They first did it in the studio with their massive hit "If I Didn't Care", but the one we're going to look at is their 1941 record "That's When Your Heartaches Begin". They started doing ballads, usually introduced by an acoustic guitar playing what would become a familiar figure -- this one:
[excerpt of "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"]
We'd then get the whole song sung through by Bill Kenny, with the others singing backing vocals:
[excerpt of him singing]
Then Kenny would join in with the backing vocals, as Hoppy Jones repeated the whole song, speak-singing it in his deep bass voice
[excerpt of that]
And finally there'd be a final line with Kenny singing lead again.
When I say this was a formula, I mean it really was a formula. They'd found a sound and they were going to absolutely stick with it. To give you an example of what I mean, here's the intro to "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)"
[intro to that song]
Now here's the intro to "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"
[intro to that song]
And here's the intro to "To Each His Own"
[intro to that song]
And to "Whispering Grass"
[intro to that song]
I could go on... if you don't believe that those are different songs, incidentally, check out the Mixcloud with the full versions of all these songs on. 
This was such a well-known formula for them that the Glenn Miller band did a dead-on parody of it:
[excerpt: "Juke Box Saturday Night"]
But the thing is -- all those songs I just played the intros of, they all went top ten, and two of them went to number one. This was a formula that absolutely, undoubtedly, worked. 
And when I say "number one" or "top ten", I don't mean on the R&B charts. I mean number one on the pop charts. They did sometimes deviate from the formula slightly -- and when they did, they didn't have hits that were quite so big. The public knew what it liked, and what it liked was a guitar going dun-dun-dun-dun, then Bill Kenny singing a song in a high voice, then Hoppy Jones saying the same words that Bill Kenny had just sung, in a much lower voice. And the Ink Spots were happy to give that to them.
That may sound like I'm being dismissive of the Ink Spots' music. I'm not. I absolutely love it. One of the great things about popular music before about 1970 is it had a lot of space for people who could do one thing really really well, and who just did their one thing. Duane Eddy, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, all just kept making basically the same record over and over, and it was a great record, so why not? 
The Ink Spots sold tens of millions of records over the decade or so when they were at their peak -- roughly from 1939, when they started making "top and bottom" records, until the late forties. Their manager Moe Gale was also the manager of most of the bands who played the Savoy, and so could put on package tours combining, say, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots and Lucky Millinder's band, all of whom often played on the same bill together. This also meant that, for example, when Deke Watson took ill with pneumonia in 1943, Trevor Bacon from Millinder's band could fill in for him. Or when the Ink Spots needed a new pianist to back them in 1942, Bill Doggett, who had been in Millinder's band, was easily available.
But Gale  was taking the majority of the money -- Gale took sixty percent while the Ink Spots got the other forty between them, split four ways. But forty percent of multiple millions of 1940s dollars is still a lot of money, and with a lot of money comes the kind of problems you only get when you've got a big pile of money and think you could get a bigger pile of money if you didn't have to share it.
The Ink Spots' period in the spotlight was eventually brought to an end by personality conflicts, lineup changes, legal squabbles, and deaths. Four years after their career took off, in 1942, Charlie Fuqua was drafted, and that began a whole series of lineup shifts, as replacements were brought in to cover his parts for the three years he was away. But then, two years later, in 1944, everything started falling apart.
Deke Watson and Bill Kenny never got on very well -- Watson thought of himself as the leader, on the grounds that he was the one who'd put the band together, named it, and been the on-stage leader until Kenny came along. Meanwhile Kenny thought of himself as the leader, on account of being the lead singer and arranger. Hoppy Jones was the peacemaker between the two of them -- he'd worked with Watson for years before Kenny came along, but he also had an assured place in the band because of his spoken bits, so he took it on himself to keep the peace.
But Hoppy Jones was growing ill, and started missing more and more dates because of what turned out to be a series of brain haemmorages. Meanwhile, Moe Gale allegedly gave Bill Kenny a pay rise, but not Watson or Jones. Deke Watson quit the band as a result of this and went off to form his own "Ink Spots". Kenny and Hoppy Jones carried on for a month -- but then, tragically, Hoppy Jones collapsed on stage and died. 
After this, Deke Watson tried to rejoin the band, but Kenny wouldn't let him.
The result was a complicated four-way legal battle. Deke Watson wanted the right to rejoin the band, or failing that to form his own Ink Spots. Bill Kenny wanted to continue touring with his current Ink Spots lineup, Charlie Fuqua wanted to make sure that once the war was over he was allowed back into the band -- unlike Watson he hadn't quit, but he was worried that with Jones and Watson out, Kenny would see no reason to let him back in. And Moe Gale wanted to be able to continue taking sixty percent of what any of them was making. There was a whole flurry of lawsuits and counter-suits.
In the end, Bill Kenny more or less won. The courts ruled that no club could book an act called "the Ink Spots" which didn't have Bill Kenny in it, but also that Deke Watson and Charlie Fuqua continued to have a financial interest in the band, that Moe Gale was still everyone's manager, and that Charlie Fuqua would be paid a regular salary as an Ink Spot while he was in the army. The only real loser was Deke Watson. He continued to get some money for his share of the Ink Spots name -- although I've seen some claims that Bill Kenny bought him out totally. But he wasn't allowed to tour as the Ink Spots, or to rejoin the band he'd founded.
Fuqua came back, and for a few years a new lineup of Bill Kenny and his brother Herb, Fuqua, and Billy Bowen toured and recorded. Deke Watson, meanwhile,  had been performing with his own Ink Spots before the lawsuits, but once they were settled, and not in his favour, he said he was going to form a new vocal group based on "a completely new idea". 
This completely new idea was to have a vocal group made up of four people, which would start their songs off with a guitar going dun-dun-dun-dun, have a bloke sing the song in a high tenor, then have someone recite the same song lyrics, then finish the song off with the high tenor again. And called "the Brown Dots".
The Brown Dots actually made a record that would itself go on to be hugely influential -- "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons", written by two of their members. 
[excerpt of "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons"]
That's been covered by almost everyone who ever sang a ballad, from Nat "King" Cole to Ella Fitzgerald to Sam Cooke to the Righteous Brothers to Rod Stewart. It looked like Deke Watson had found himself a second great band to be with. But then the other band members realised that it was hard to get on with Deke Watson, and left him to form their own band without him. The Four Tunes, their new name, would have several big hits in the 1950s, without Watson.
Meanwhile, back in the Ink Spots, Charlie Fuqua returned for a while, but in 1952 he and Bill Kenny decided to part ways. The lawsuit from eight years earlier had said that both of them had an equal share in the band name, but had *also* said that only bands with Bill Kenny in could legally be presented as "the Ink Spots". Rather than reopen that can of worms, they eventually came to an agreement that Kenny and his band could carry on calling themselves "The Ink Spots" and Fuqua would tour as "Charlie Fuqua's New Ink Spots".
Except that Fuqua soon ended up breaking this agreement, and just touring and recording as "the Ink Spots" -- he even got Deke Watson back into his band for a while. 
There's one recording of that version of the band -- Jimmy Holmes, Charlie Fuqua, Deek Watson, and Harold Jackson -- live at the Apollo before Watson was kicked out again:
[excerpt of "Wish You Were Here"]
As you can hear, it sort of sounds like the Ink Spots, but not really. Meanwhile Bill Kenny was still making records as the Ink Spots, which still sounded like the old Ink Spots minus Hoppy's bass vocal:
[excerpt of "I Don't Stand The Ghost of a Chance With You"]
So there was one version of "the Ink Spots" touring with two original members, and another with no original members, but with the bloke who'd sung lead on all their hits and had the memorable voice that everyone wanted to hear when they heard the Ink Spots.
That wasn't a situation that was sustainable, so they went to court again -- and most people would have expected the court to make the same ruling it had before, that they owned the band name equally but that Bill Kenny was the only one who could tour as the Ink Spots.
Instead, the ruling was one that no-one had expected, and that no-one wanted.
You see, it turns out that the Ink Spots weren't a corporation, they were a partnership. And the judge ruled that, when Hoppy Jones had died, ten years earlier, that partnership had been dissolved. Since then, there had been no legitimate group called the Ink Spots, and no-one owned the name. Neither the surviving original members of the band, nor the man whose arrangement ideas and lead vocals had brought the band their success, had any claim over it. Anyone at all could go out and call themselves The Ink Spots and go on tour, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. 
And they did. Every surviving member of the band -- not just the three surviving members of the classic lineup, but anyone who had filled in in a later version of the band on guitar or what have you -- went out on tour as "the Ink Spots". At one point there were up to forty different "Ink Spots" groups touring, and many of them were recording too. Usually, at first, these bands would have some claim to authenticity, having at least one person who'd been in a proper version of the Ink Spots -- and indeed a few times in the fifties and sixties Fuqua and Watson would get together again and tour as "Ink Spots", in between bouts of suing each other. But more and more they'd just be any group of four black men, so long as you could get one old enough that he might plausibly have been in the band with Bill Kenny at some point.
The last actual Ink Spots member, Huey Long, who had been one of the temporary replacements for Charlie Fuqua in 1945 for nine months, died aged 106 in 2009. The last Ink Spots gig I've been able to find details for took place in 2013.
But the Ink Spots' career ending in legal infighting, arguments over credit, and disputes over the band name isn't the only way in which they were a precursor to rock music. Over the next few weeks we'll hear how, along with the jump band sound that was coming to dominate rhythm and blues, a new wave of Ink Spots-inspired vocal groups ended up shaping the new music.
And how, in 1953, shortly after the Ink Spots' final split, a young man walked into a recording studio in Memphis that let you make your own single-copy records. He wanted to make a record of himself singing, as a gift for his mother, and he chose one of his favourite songs, "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", as one of the two tracks he would record.
But we'll get to Elvis Presley in a few episodes' time...
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Episode 5: Rosetta Tharpe and “This Train”


 Photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe


Welcome to episode five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Sister Rosetta Tharpe and "This Train"


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Most of Rosetta Tharpe's music is now in the public domain, so there are a lot of compilations available. This one, at three CDs for four pounds, is probably the one to get.

Almost all the information about Rosetta Tharpe's life in this episode comes from Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, 

For more on Thomas Dorsey, check out The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris.

The Spirituals to Swing concerts are currently out of print, and the recording quality is poor enough it's really not worth paying the silly money the CDs go for second hand. But if you want to do that, you can find them here.

And Rosetta Tharpe's performance at Wilbraham Road Railway Station can be found on The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966


One of the problems when dealing with the history of rock and roll, as we touched upon the other week in the brief disclaimer episode, is the way it's dominated by men. Indeed, the story of rock and roll is the story of men crowding out women, and white men crowding out black men, and finally of rich white men crowding out poorer white men, until it eventually becomes a dull, conservative genre. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but don't say I didn't warn you when I get to the nineties.
But one black woman is as responsible as anyone for the style of rock and roll, and in particular, for its focus on the guitar.
To find out why, we're going to be making our final trip back to 1938 and Carnegie Hall.
We've talked in earlier episodes about John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts, and at the time I said that I'd talk some more about the ways in which they were important, but also about how they were problematic. (I know that's a word that gets overused these days, but I mean it literally -- they had problems, but weren't all bad. Far from it).
One of the most problematic aspects of them, indeed, is encoded in the name. "From Spirituals to Swing". It gives you a nice, simple, linear narrative -- one that was still being pushed in books I read in the 1980s. You start with the spirituals and you end with swing. It's like those diagrams of the evolution of man, with the crawling monkey on one side and the tall, oddly hairless, white man with his genitals carefully concealed on the other.
The fact is, most of the narrative about "primitive" music -- a narrative that was put forward by very progressive white men like John Hammond or the Lomaxes -- is deeply mistaken. The forms of music made largely by black people could sound less sophisticated in the 1930s, but that wasn't because they were atavistic survivals of more primitive forms, musical coelacanths dredged up from the depths to parade. It was because the people making the music often couldn't afford expensive instruments, and were recorded on cheaper equipment, and all the other myriad ways society makes the lives of black people, and underprivileged people in other ways, just that bit more difficult.
But this was, nonetheless, the narrative that was current in the 1930s. And so the Spirituals to Swing concerts featured a bisexual black woman who basically invented much of what would become rock guitar, an innovator if ever there was one, but portrayed her as somehow less sophisticated than the big band music on the same bill. And they did that because that innovative black woman was playing religious music.
In fact, black gospel music had grown up around the same time as the big bands. Black people had, of course, been singing in churches since their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, but gospel music as we talk about it now was largely the creation of one man -- Thomas Dorsey.
(This is not the same man as the white bandleader Tommy Dorsey who we've mentioned a couple of times earlier).
Dorsey was a blues and jazz musician, who had led the band for Ma Rainey, one of the great early blues singers, and under the name "Georgia Tom" he'd collaborated with Tampa Red on a series of singles. Their song "It's Tight Like That", from 1928, is one of the earliest hokum records, and is largely responsible for a lot of the cliches of the form -- and it sold seven million copies.
[excerpt of "It's Tight Like That"]
That record, in itself, is one of the most important records that has ever been made -- you can trace from that song, through hokum blues, through R&B, and find its influence in basically every record made by a black American, or by anyone who's ever listened to a record made by a black American, since then. If Dorsey had only made that one record, he would have been one of the most important figures in music history.
But some time around 1930, he also started writing a whole new style of music. It combined the themes, and some of the melody, of traditional Christian hymns, with the feel of the blues and jazz music he'd been playing. It's rare that you can talk about a single person inventing a whole field of music, but gospel music as we know it basically *was* invented by Thomas Dorsey. 
Other people had performed gospel music before, of course, but the style was very different from anything we now think of as gospel. Dorsey was the one who pulled all the popular music idioms into it and made it into something that powered and inspired all the popular music since.
He did this because he was so torn between his faith and his work as a blues musician that he had multiple breakdowns -- at one point finding himself on stage with Ma Rainey and completely unable to move his fingers to play the piano. While he continued parallel careers for a while, eventually he settled on making religious music. And the songs he wrote include some of the most well-known songs of all time, like "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord".
That's a song he wrote in 1932, after his wife died in childbirth and his newborn son died a couple of days later. He was feeling a grief that most of us could never imagine, a pain that must have been more unbearable than anything anyone should have to suffer, and the pain came out in beauty like this:
[excerpt of Rosetta Tharpe singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"]
That's not "primitive" music. That's not music that is unsophisticated. That's not some form of folk art. That's one man, a man who personally revolutionised music multiple times over, writing about his own personal grief and creating something that stands as great art without having to be patronised or given special consideration.
And the person singing on that recording is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, like Dorsey, is someone who doesn't need to be given special treatment or be thought of as good considering her disadvantages or any of that patronising nonsense. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the great singers of her generation, and one of the great guitar players of all time. And she was making music that was as modern and cutting-edge as anything else made in the 1930s and 40s. She wasn't making music that was a remnant of something that would evolve into swing, no matter what John Hammond thought, she was making important music, and music that would in the long run be seen as far more important than most of the swing bands.
Obviously, one should not judge Hammond too harshly. He was from another time. A primitive.
Sister Rosetta was brought up in, and spent her life singing for, the Church of God in Christ. As many of my listeners are in Europe, as I am myself, it's probably worth explaining what this church is, because while it does have branches outside the US, that's where it's based, and that's where most of its membership is.
The Church of God in Christ is a Pentecostal church, and it's the largest Pentacostal church in the US, and the fifth-largest church full stop. I mention that it's a Pentacostal church, because that's something you need to understand to understand Rosetta Tharpe. Pentacostals believe in something slightly different to what most other Christian denominations believe. 
Before I go any further, I should point out that I am *not* an expert in theology by any means, and that what I'm going to say may well be a mischaracterisation. If you're a Pentacostal and disagree with my characterisation of your religion here, I apologise, and if you let me know I'll at least update the show notes. No disrespect is intended.
While most Christians believe that humanity is always tainted by original sin, Pentacostals believe that it is possible for some people, if they truly believe -- if they're "born again" to use a term that's a little more widespread than just Pentacostalism -- to become truly holy. Those people will have all their past sins forgiven, and will then be sinless on Earth. To do this, you have to be "baptised in the Holy Ghost". This is different from normal baptism, what Pentacostals call "water baptism" -- though most Pentacostals think you should be water baptised anyway, as a precursor to the main event. Rather, this is the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven and entering you, filling you with joy and a sense of sanctity. This can often cause speaking in tongues and other strange behaviours, as people are enthused (a word which, in the original Greek, actually meant a god entering into you), and once this has happened you have the tendency to sin removed from you altogether. 
This is all based on the Acts of the Apostles, specifically Acts 2:4, which describes how at the Pentecost (which is the seventh Sunday after Easter), "All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them".
Unlike many Protestant denominations, which adhere to Calvinist beliefs that nobody can know if they're going to Heaven or Hell, and that only God can ever know this, and that nothing you do can make a difference to your chances, most Pentacostals believe that you can definitely tell whether you're going to Heaven. You're going to Heaven once you're sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and that's an end of it.
At least, it's an end of it so long as you continue with what's called "outward holiness", and so you have to dress conservatively, to avoid swearing, to avoid drinking or gambling or smoking, or dancing suggestively, or wearing makeup. If you do that, once the spirit's entered into you, you're going to remain holy and free from temptation. If you don't do that, well, then the Devil might get you after all.
This is a very real fear for many Pentacostals, who have a belief in a literal heaven and hell. And it's a fear that has inspired a *lot* of the most important musicians in rock and roll. But Pentacostalism isn't just about fear and living right, it's also about that feeling of elation and exhiliration when the holy spirit enters you. And music helps bring that feeling about. 
It's no surprise that a lot of the early rock and rollers went to Pentacostal churches -- at many of them, especially in the South of the US, there's a culture of absolutely wild, unrestrained, passionate music and dancing, to get people into the mood to have the spirit enter them. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe is probably the greatest performer to come out of those churches.
But while most of the performers we'll be looking at started playing secular music, Sister Rosetta never did, or at least very rarely. But she was, nonetheless, an example of something that we'll see a lot in the history of rock -- the pull between the spiritual and the worldly. 
From the very start of her career, Sister Rosetta was slightly different from the other gospel performers. While she lived in Chicago at the same time as Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, she isn't generally considered part of the gospel scene that they were at the centre of -- because she was travelling round the country playing at revival meetings, rather than staying in one place. When her first marriage -- to a fellow evangelist, who apparently abused her -- broke up, she moved on to New York, and there she started playing to audiences that were very different from the churches she was used to.
Where people like Mahalia were playing church music for church people, Rosetta Tharpe was taking the gospel to the sinners. Throughout her career, she played in nightclubs and theatres, playing for any audience that would have her, and playing music that got them excited and dancing, even as she was singing about holiness.
She started playing the Cotton Club in 1938. The Cotton Club was the most famous club in New York, though in 1938 it was on its last days of relevance. It had been located in Harlem until 1936, but after riots in Harlem, it had moved to a more respectable area, and was now on Broadway.
In the twenties and early thirties, the Cotton Club had been responsible for the success of both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, though only Calloway was still playing there regularly by the time Rosetta Tharpe started performing there. It was still, though, the place to be seen -- at least if you were white. The Cotton Club was strictly segregated -- only black people on stage, but only white people in the audience. The black performers were there to be leered at, in the case of the showgirls, or to play up to black stereotypes. Even Duke Ellington, possibly the most sophisticated musician ever to come out of the United States, had been presented as a "jungle musician". The name itself -- the Cotton Club -- was trading on associations with slavery and cotton picking, and the feel of the new venue could probably be summed up by the fact that it had, on its walls, pictures of famous white bandleaders in blackface.
So it's not surprising that the performances that Sister Rosetta did at the Cotton Club were very different from the ones she'd been doing when she was travelling the country with her mother performing to church crowds. She was still playing the same music, of course -- in fact, over her career, she mostly stuck to the same quite small repertoire, rerecording the same material in new arrangements and with new emphases as she grew as an artist -- but now she was doing it as part of a parody of the very kind of church service she had grown up in and devoted her life to, with dancers pretending to be "Holy Rollers", mocking her religion even as her music itself was still devoted to it.
Originally, she was only taken on at the Cotton Club as a sort of trial, on a two-week engagement -- and apparently she thought the manager was joking when she was offered five hundred dollars a week, not believing she could be making that much money -- and her role was simply to be one of many acts who'd come on and do a song or two between the bigger acts who were given star billing. But she soon became a hit, and she soon got signed to Decca to make records.
Her first record was, of course, a song by Thomas Dorsey, originally titled "Hide Me in Thy Bosom" but given the newer title "Rock Me" by Tharpe. Her arrangement largely stuck to Dorsey's original, with one important exception -- where he had written "singing", Tharpe sang "swinging".
[excerpt of "Rock Me"]
Many people also claimed to hear a double entendre in the lyrics to "Rock Me", and to think the song was about more worldly matters than Dorsey had intended. Whether Tharpe thought that or not, it almost certainly factored into the decision to make it her first single.
When she was booked to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts, she performed both that song and "That's All", backed by Albert Ammons, one of the boogie woogie players who also appeared on the bill, and in the recording of that we can hear, rather better than in the studio recording, the raw power of Tharpe's performance.
[excerpt of "That's All" from Carnegie Hall]
The sound quality of these recordings isn't great, of course, but you can clearly hear the enthusiasm in that performance.
Tharpe's performances at the Cotton Club drew a great deal of attention, and Time magazine even did a feature on her, and how she “Swings Same Songs in Church and Night Club.” When the Cotton Club shut down she moved on to the Cafe Society, a venue booked by John Hammond, which was an integrated club and which fit her rather better.
While she was working there, she came to the attention of Lucky Millinder, the big band leader. Different people have different ideas as to how the two started working together -- Mo Gale, Millinder's manager, was also Chick Webb's manager, and claimed that it was his idea and that he'd seen Tharpe as being an Ella Fitzgerald to Millinder's Chick Webb, but Bill Doggett, the piano player with Millinder's band, said that it was Millinder's idea, not Gale's, to get Tharpe on board.
Either way, the combination worked well enough at first, as Tharpe got to sing the same songs she'd been performing earlier -- her gospel repertoire -- but with a big band backing her. She'd also switched to playing an electric guitar rather than an acoustic, and the effect on her guitar playing was extraordinary -- where before she'd had to be a busy accompanist, constantly playing new notes due to the lack of sustain from an acoustic guitar, now she was able to play single-note lead lines and rely on the orchestra to provide the chordal pad.
Her remake of "Rock Me" with Millinder's band, from 1941, shows just how much her artistry had improved in just three years:
[excerpt of 1941 "Rock Me"]
With that record, she more or less invented the guitar style that T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and others would adapt for themselves. That's just how you play electric blues now, but it wasn't how anyone played before Rosetta Tharpe.
Soon after she joined Millinder's band they moved to a residency at the Savoy Ballroom, and became one of the most popular bands for dancers in New York -- regulars there included a young man known as Detroit Red, who later changed his name to Malcolm X.  The Savoy Ballroom was closed down not long after -- allegedly for prostitution, but more likely because it allowed white women to dance with black men, and the city of New York wouldn't allow that -- although as Malcolm X said, it wasn't as if they were dragging the white women in there.
However, Millinder's band was an odd fit for Rosetta Tharpe, and she was increasingly forced to sing secular numbers along with the gospel music she loved. There were plenty of good things about the band, of course -- she became lifelong friends with its young trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie, for example, and she enjoyed a tour where they were on the same bill as a young vocal group, The Four Ink Spots, but she was a little bit uncomfortable singing songs like "Tall Skinny Papa", which wasn't particularly gospel-like
[excerpt "Tall Skinny Papa"]
And it's not particularly likely that she was keen on the follow-up, although she didn't sing on that one.
[excerpt "Big Fat Mama"]
So eventually, she quit the Millinder band, without giving notice, and went back to performing entirely solo, at least at first. 
This was in the middle of the musicians' union strike, but when that ended, Tharpe was back in the studio, and in September 1944 she began one of the two most important musical collaborations of her career, when she recorded "Strange Things Happening Every Day", with Sam Price on piano.
Sam Price did *not* get along with Tharpe. He insisted on her playing with a capo, because she was playing in an open tuning and wasn't playing in a normal jazz key. He didn't like the idea of combining gospel music with his boogie woogie style (eventually he was persuaded by Tharpe's mother, a gospel star in her own right who was by all accounts a fearsome and intimidating presence, that this was OK), and when the result became a massive hit, he resented that he got a flat fee.
But nonetheless, "Strange Things Happening Every Day" marks out the start of yet another new style for Tharpe -- and it's yet another song often credited as "the first rock and roll record".
[Excerpt "Strange Things Happening Every Day"]
Shortly after this, Tharpe started working with another gospel singer, Marie Knight. Her partnership with Marie Knight may have been a partnership in more than one sense. Knight denied the relationship to the end of her days -- and it's entirely understandable that she would, given that she was a gospel singer who was devoted to a particularly conservative church, and whose career also depended on that church -- but their relationship was regarded as an open secret within the gospel music community, which had a rather more relaxed attitude to homosexuality and bisexuality than the rest of the church. Some of Tharpe's friends have described her as a secret lesbian, but given her multiple marriages to men it seems more likely that she was bi -- although of course we will never know for sure.
Either way, Tharpe and Knight were a successful double act for many years, with their voices combining perfectly to provide a gospel vocal sound that was unlike anything ever recorded. They stopped working together in 1950, but remained close enough that Knight was in charge of Tharpe's funeral in 1973,
The two of them toured together -- and Tharpe toured later on her own -- in their own bus, which was driven by a white man. This gave them a number of advantages in a deeply segregated and racist country. It was considered acceptable for them to go into some public places where they otherwise wouldn't have been allowed, because they were with a white man -- if a black woman was with a white man, it was just assumed that she was sleeping with him, and unlike a white woman sleeping with a black man, this was considered absolutely acceptable, a sexual double-standard that dated back to slavery. If they needed food and the restaurant in a town was whites-only, they could send the white driver in to get them takeout. And if it came to it, if there was no hotel in town that would take black people, they could sleep on the bus.
And segregation was so accepted at the time by so many people that even when Tharpe toured with a white vocal group, the Jordanaires (who would later find more fame backing up some country singer named Elvis something) they just thought her having her own bus was cool, and didn't even make the connection to how necessary it was for her.
While Tharpe and Knight made many great records together, probably Tharpe's most important recording was a solo B-side to one of their singles, a 1947 remake of a song she'd first recorded in 1938, "This Train", again featuring Sam Price on piano:
[excerpt "This Train"]
That's a song that sets out the theology of the Pentacostal church as well as you'll ever hear it. This train is a *clean* train. You want to ride it you better get redeemed. No tobacco chewers or cigar smokers. No crap shooters. If you want to be bound for glory, you need to act holy.
There was no-one bigger than Tharpe in her genre. She is probably the first person to ever play rock and roll guitar in stadiums -- and not only that, she played rock and roll guitar in a stadium *at her wedding* -- her third wedding, to be precise, which took place at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays. Twenty thousand people came to see her get married and perform a gospel show afterwards, concluding with fireworks that first exploded in the shape of Tharpe playing her guitar before taking on other shapes like two hearts pierced with Cupid's arrow. Even Tharpe's half-sister had to pay for her ticket to the show. Apparently Tharpe signed the contract for her wedding seven months earlier, and then went out to find herself a husband.
Rosetta Tharpe's popularity started to wane in the 1950s, at least in her home country, but she retained a following in Europe. There's fascinating footage of her in 1964 filmed by Granada TV, playing at the abandoned Wilbraham Road railway station in Manchester. If you live in Manchester, as I do, that piece of track, which is now part of the Fallowfield cycle loop was the place where some of the greats of black American music were filmed for what may have been the greatest blues TV programme of all time -- along with Tharpe, there was Muddy Waters, Otis Span, Reverend Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, all performing in the open air in Manchester in front of an extremely earnest audience of young white British people. Fittingly for an open-air show in Manchester, Tharpe opened her short set with "Didn't It Rain"
[Didn't It Rain TV performance excerpt]
By that time, Tharpe had become primarily known as a blues musician, even though she was still doing the same thing she'd always been doing, simply because music had moved on and recategorised her. But she'd had an influence on blues, R&B, and rock and roll music that most people didn't even realise. "This Train" was not written by Tharpe, exactly -- it dates back to the 1920s -- but it was definitely her version, and her rewrite, that inspired one of the most important blues records of all time:
[Excerpt of "My Babe"]
Indeed, only a few months after Rosetta Tharpe's UK performances, Gerry and the Pacemakers, one of the biggest bands of the new Merseybeat sound, who'd had three number one records that year in the UK, were recording their own version of "My Babe". Gerry and the Pacemakers were, in most respects, as far as you could imagine from gospel music, and yet the connection is there, closer than you'd think.
Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973, and never really got the recognition she deserved. She was only inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame last year. But if you've ever liked rock guitar, you've got her to thank. Shout, Sister, Shout!
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