« An absolutely essential acquisition » by Blues & Rhythm

After the crossover attemps wich disfigured volume four (FA 1304 reviewed in B&R 208), this set, wich more or less wraps up Sister’s recordings for her original primary market, is a much less mixed pleasure, though it has its weak spots. CD one contains her final outings for Decca, who were still trying to find new markets but mostly more intelligently than before, at least from an artistic standpoint. Although discographers put the first session in New York city, it must really have taken place in Chicago where drummer Red Saunders is known to have been. He contributes the power and swing you would expect. Rosetta does her own guitar playing once again and to brilliant effect. The second vocal on « Sing and shout » is Rosetta herself multitracked, an odd decision with Marie Night in the studio, but it works well enough. This session is more scrambled on the CD even than B&R’s heading style makes it appear. The producers have moved the first title recorded, « I’m so glad », into fifth place because it has been available only in a very rough copy. It’s quite listenable though. Marie Knight’s solo vocals from the session have only an honorary claim to inclusion, as it seems very unlikely the barely audible rhythm guitar is by Rosetta. Except for « Calvary », wich is rather gimmicky, these are worthwhile performances in their own right. Where Rosetta’s solos might be, pianist James « Red » Roots gets strut his stuff. He was New York based and was presumably travelling with them. Decca then made an attempt to get Sister back into the secular r&b market. Leroy Kirkland leads the band and plays all the guitar. A very good tenor saxophonist is heard, but is obliged on « Don’t Leave Me Here To Cry » to provide an obbligato to an extended passage of some of the stagiest and least convincing crying ever committed to record. Sister’s heart was not in this and the use of quasi-religious language like « You got to love your neighbour even if you don’t love me », can only have increased the offence to her core audience. The tenor man gets a better chance on the ballad, which is a tender variant of « Careless Love ». Posterity can enjoy these, but it’s no wonder the audience of 1953 didn’t. The following session brings back the Sam Price Trio (I was mistaken in B&R 2008 in thinking the 21st February 1951 session was the last of this partnership). These 1954 sides are as good as everything else they did together and « Look Away » is (I think !) the last duet with Marie. Only the excellence of this accompaniment prevents the final titles from this session, wich feature the Sy Oliver Singers, from being uniformly pop gospel. « In Bethlehem », wich is a walz , is nonetheless irredeemable and « This Ole House » isn’t a lot better. The great jazz organist Marlowe Morris is on these but wouldn’t really notice. The final four Deccas, two of which were unissed at the time, feature The Harmonizing Four of Richmond. Everett Barksdale is the guitarist. Unfortunately no one finds much inspiration in the bouncy jollity of the settings of the three fast numbers and everything is trivialised by the Dixieland drumming of Boddy Donaldson. If there can be gospel businessmen’s bounce. « Feather Prepare Me » is it. Sister has to carry these pretty much single-hanted and as on volume four she demonstrates her ability to transcend her surroundings. Four months after leaving Decca, Sister began to record for Mercury and the second CD opens with the resulting LP, though « The Saints » was only on a single. She is reborn. Tracks one to eight (rather than one to four as the notes say) are solo performances exept that « 99 ½ Won’t Do » has her multi-tracked. She plays the guitar throughout and gets the support she deserves from a tight swinging band, with Ernest Hayes on piano, Doc Bagby on organ, and the immortal Panama Francis demonstrating one more time that he ranks with the most swinging drummers who ever lifted sticks. It would be pointless to enthuse further. These show a great artist returning to her best form. Mercury didn’t have quite enough faith in what they were doing not to pad the album with four tracks recorded three days later with the Harmonizing Four. Sister really did not need interruptions from the studied affectations of holy doo-wop, but she and Bagby and Francis sweep the burblings aside, assisted by George Duvivier on bass, who plays a more prominent part on « Up above My Head » is followed by a guitar solo wich soars to reclaim the performance for spontaneity and good taste. On « Jericho », the guys are silent and this is a classic. Two singles followed, both practically one-siders from a later perspective. « Home In The Sky » is beautifully sung but the aesthetic is pop with accompaniment by a very conventional organist, who is anonymous in both senses. By contrast « Can’t Do Wrong » romps along in the best tradition. « No liar [substitute favorite type of sinner to taste as the song unfolds] can do wrong and get by ». If only it were true ! « Let’s Be Happy », with its bolero rhythm is a mere novelty, but « Let It Shine » restores the faith and effectively ends Sister’s career as a singles artist in her original market. On to the end of this CD, Frémeaux have tacked the jumping Apollo Theater appearance, dating possibly from 1952, wich was first issued on « Let’s Have A Ball Tonight » (Natasha Imports NI4025). It’s impossible not to wonder who the Mercury LP was aimed at. Did the producers foresee an audience amongst jazz and blues enthusiasts ? It was issued in France where the Hot Club Bulletin for November 1957 devoted two pages to it as « without doubt one the best LPs issued in France this year ». Evidently the opposition over at Jazz Hot had been less enthusiastic. The bulletin praised not only its musical excellence but the recording’s extraordinary presence, wich is still noteworthy. It is inquestionably one of the peaks of Tharpe’s recording career. There would be another Mercury LP in 1958, but on 19th November 1957 Sister flew to London to launch a new career in new markets whose interest in her was almost exclusively musical rather than devotional. They knew from her the best of the Deccas and that was the style they wanted to hear. These CDs by contrast have the whole Sister, warts and all, but there are very few warts and this time only two tracks I will certainly never play again. Not a bad average and if you don’t have the Mercury tracks is another form an absolutely essential acquisition. Here’s to volume six ! Howard RYE – BLUES & RHYTHM