Lizzo's guitarist Celisse on guitar pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe: 'Rock 'n' roll really is a black woman'

American gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 - 1973) performs at a Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in the UK, 1964. (Photo: Tony Evans/Getty Images)
American gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 - 1973) performs at a Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in the UK, 1964. (Photo: Tony Evans/Getty Images)

It took till 2018 for Sister Rosetta Tharpe for be posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it was only last month that she was honored with the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award. But while Tharpe, a queer black woman from the South who came up playing music in the church, is only beginning to get her due in the mainstream, her impact has been felt since the very beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll.

Tharpe, who died in 1973, has long been known by guitar aficionados as the “godmother” of the rock genre and "the original soul sister,” and she has been cited as a key influence by everyone from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, to Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Starting in the ‘30s, notably with the 1938 single “Rock Me,” she was one of the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on an electric guitar, foreshadowing the rise of electric/British blues and helping her eventually connect with wider R&B and rock audiences. In fact, her landmark boogie-woogie single, "Strange Things Happening Every Day,” was the first gospel record to cross over, going to No. 2 on Billboard’s "race records" chart in 1945.

Tharpe’s recent long-overdue accolades have brought the pioneering guitarist to the attention of younger music fans, as has a recent buzzy Saturday Night Live appearance by Lizzo guitarist and Tharpe disciple Celisse Henderson — who performed Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” on SNL picking the same type of cream-colored Gibson SG Custom that Tharpe used to play, completing the striking look with a “Sister”-emblazoned guitar strap, a modernized haute couture version of Tharpe’s signature coat, and a Rosetta forearm tattoo. The episode is set to replay on NBC on Feb. 15.

To celebrate Black History Month, Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume sat down with Celisse to discuss Tharpe’s legacy and that special, viral SNL moment.

Yahoo Entertainment: It safe to say that sister Rosetta invented rock ‘n’ roll?

Celisse: Yes, it is safe to say that! And I will say it forever. Because so often people point to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters as the foundation pieces that people pulled from to create the genre — but Chuck and Muddy were going to the clubs and to theaters and to churches to listen to Sister Rosetta. And she was doing this in the ‘30s!

Do you think she is finally getting the attention she deserves?

Well, on one hand, I think it's a beautiful thing that she's been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I think it frustrates me a bit that it's taken this long to induct somebody who created the genre. It feels like this should have been the first person. But, better late than never.

I admit with embarrassment that I didn’t know about her until maybe 10 years ago.

Well, of course you didn't. Because no one was trying to make sure that you knew. And because she was black and a woman. Two double-whammies,, right? Gail Wald wrote a really incredible book called Shout, Sister, Shout! about her. … We're just getting to the point to where we're getting more reissues and more of her music is available digitally. But even 10 years ago, it was hard to find. Her stuff is still hard to find. I started searching for different records and stuff like that. Then when I really started to get into electric guitar six years ago, I was so used to listening to her all the time. She is so inherently such a rhythmic player, and I am very rhythmic-centered with my stuff. I think she's one of those people where you've been influenced by her, whether you know it or not, because so many people have been influenced by her. … I think she's in all of us, really.

In what specific or surprising ways was Sister Rosetta Tharpe a pioneer?

It's really wild to think about what she's done. That guitar she plays, the SG, has becomes such a big iconic rock ‘n’ roll guitar. She literally was a first person playing an SG on TV. She was the first person to have a tour bus with living quarters, with places to sleep in the back and places to ride in the front. She was the first person, but we never talk about it. I think that that sort of erasure happened because of her being a part of marginalized groups. But I think the exciting thing now — especially for someone like me, a young black female player — is I stand directly on her shoulders, and I have the wonderful opportunity to remind everybody. When you look at me and you say, “Oh my God, it's so crazy, you're such a novelty, to be a black woman that plays rock ‘n’ roll music,” I actually get to go, “This is a black art form, and it started with a black woman. It's actually not a novelty at all.” The narrative has been focused on straight white men, but it's a genre, it's an instrument that is available to everyone. And I have said and will continue to say that rock ‘n’ roll really is a black woman. The genre is a black woman personified. It is everything a black woman is. Mick Jagger talks a lot about watching the feeling of the black woman singing in church. I mean, that's really what it is. All of that. It comes from the spirit of gospel music — which is black people, black women.

How did you discover her?

I was trying to really realize this. My parents are both big gospel musicians, so I feel it's possible that my first knowledge of her came through recordings. I didn't really understand what I was listening to, but maybe something we heard in the car or something. But then maybe similar to you, about maybe 10 years ago, I stumbled upon a YouTube clip of her playing “Up Above My Head” at the church with her in that floral dress, on the SG. I remember thinking, just like... “OK, I'm going to try this electric guitar thing.” Back then I just was so obsessed with this woman who looked like my grandma in this conservative church dress, playing this music.

And when you performed with Lizzo on Saturday Night Live, with an all black/female backing band, you got to pay tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and bring her to a whole new audience. Tell me about how that came together.

Her music director reached out to me. I'd never worked with Lizzo at the time. He reached out to me over Instagram, funny enough — slid in the DM, and then sent another email to my booking address and said, "I have this television opportunity. Can you please send me a résumé?" He asked for three or four videos and he wanted to hear R&B, hip-hop, and rock. I at first thought maybe this was fake, because it was a DM. But I thought, “OK, it will take me literally a couple of minutes to send him this stuff, whatever.” I sent it to him… maybe a couple of hours later he wrote back and said, “Lizzo really enjoyed these videos. She'd love for you to play with her on SNL.”I had no idea it was even for Lizzo! He just said a “television opportunity.”

So, I'm hired, and they send me the music, sort of a demo of what they were going to do. The guitar tone immediately, it was a really specific humbucker thing, and I had had this beautiful white SG custom that I'd gotten from Gibson three or four months before. I thought, “Oh this will be a great guitar for this,” not knowing anything that they wanted to do this sort of tribute. I get to rehearsal, we go over the music. Her creative director talks to me a little further and says, "We're getting this jacket made for you." It was Dapper Dan for Gucci coat that resembled a modern take on the white coat that [Sister Rosetta] wore in all the videos with her at the train station.

Did they know you were a Sister Rosetta Tharpe super-fan?

I don't think they knew how deep an influence it was for me. I don't think they knew that I happen to have chosen to play the guitar that is modeled after her guitar, or that I have a tattoo of her on my forearm… I loved the idea about having this woman on my arm so that every time somebody asked me about my tattoo, I’d get to talk about her. … I mean, it's deep for me. All of these things just came together really beautifully.

Another important thing I think to note too is initially the way that it was staged, I was going to be upstage with the rest of the band for the whole number. We did a bunch of run-throughs and then Lizzo looked at the staging and was like, “No, I want to make a moment of this. We hired you for a reason.” She opened up that space for us to really have this moment together, to be featured in this way that was completely unexpected, and so generous on a night that was so important for her.

And then your Sister tribute went viral.

Yeah, in my mind I was like, “It'll be a cool performance and my mom will see it, my nana will see it. It'll give me something to post about for a day and then it'll be it.” The next day after SNL happened, I thought, “I should post one more thing about this,” so I went into the layout Instagram app and I put Sister Rosetta's picture of her in the white coat next to mine and just said, "Hey, catch the reference?" That is the image that went viral, which made everybody go, "I thought that's what was going on!” Then a bunch of write-ups happened.

What sort of response did you get?

To be perfectly honest, I think a lot of people who were probably watching for [that night’s host] Eddie Murphy and probably not for Lizzo, but they saw that performance and I think gained a new level of respect for her — and a new level of respect of what's possible in pop music, in a pop vein. That song [“Truth Hurts”] is a song we've heard so much, and the fact that they were willing to turn it and make it guitar-focused in this way is really cool.

The feedback was amazing. The younger audience, teens and twenties, were all people that didn't know who [Sister Rosetta Tharpe] was and were like, "Oh, who is this person?" — and sort of looking her up and then tagging me in these videos. Older [fans] were so moved at the thought. There were like, "This is so cool. I know exactly who this is."

It was really cool, because millions of people were talking about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A lot of people were discovering who she was. A lot of people were remembering who she was. And I think it is such a beautiful thing that Lizzo and the creative team had that in their mind, to want to use that space to honor this woman who was so important to modern music.

The above condensed interview is taken from Celisse’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.

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