Pete JohnsonSister Rosetta Tharpe
For my last show in March each year since she passed in 2014, I have had my mother on my mind. She was born on March 31st, 1921, and always joked that she was born a day too early. Well, this year April Fool’s Day will also be Easter Sunday so, even though I am not a religious man, you will be hearing a good dose of the Spiritual (and some of her Blues) singing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
My mother took so many piano lessons in her youth that she never wanted the instrument in her own home and, even though it was not what she would choose, she always enjoyed a good Boogie Woogie such as what you will hear played by Pete Johnson. She would say she liked anything with a beat, the same thing my fourteen year old granddaughter told me recently when I queried her about her musical taste. I guess that is pretty much universal.
The music of her generation was Swing and she was a fan of Benny Goodman, so it is a good time to present his guitar player, Charlie Christian, the earliest influential electric Jazz player in about a half hour live, more Bop styled performance.
In August of 2014, my brother and I took the train to Vancouver, Canada, to lay her ashes to rest in the town we were born. Since one of the bands I heard there last summer is making a return to the Bay Area at the end of the month, I’ll be fitting in some of the Harpdog Brown material I didn’t play when they came down last year.
Phyllis Bernice Coyle, I am thinking of you as always.
*************************Born Kermit H. Johnson in Kansas City Missouri on March 25th 1904, Pete Johnson would become known as one of the Boogie Woogie Trio along with fellow pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis following their inclusion in John Hammond’s fabled Spirituals to Swing concert of December 23rd & 24th 1938 at Carnegie Hall. Ammons and Lewis paired up as one act in the concert while Johnson backed up Big Joe Turner. Originally, Hammond wanted Turner to front the Count Basie band but Big Joe wanted neither to learn the material of Basie’s singer Jimmy Rushing nor deny Rushing the privilege of appearing in the concert himself, and Big Joe was more comfortable anyway performing with only his piano playing partner Johnson.
Having never met previously but housed in the same hotel for the concert, the Boogie Woogie Trio became friends and remained in New York after the concert performing along with vocalist Turner at both the uptown and downtown locations of the Café Society through the summer of 1941. Notably, the café was integrated in both its players and its audience. As Billie Holiday recalled her January 4th appearance for her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, “Meade Lux Lewis knocked the crowd out. Ammons and Johnson flipped them on a battered old piano; Joe Turner just killed them; Frankie Newton’s band sent them; and then, I came on, and man, this was a real audience.” The trio also appeared in a 1941 film short, Boogie Woogie Dream.
Regarding his early life, Pete’s father left early on and his mother tried to raise him but had to put him in an orphanage when he was three years old, but he ran away and back to his mother. By the time he was twelve, Johnson was working to help the two get by, taking on jobs in a factory, a print shop or as a shoe shine boy, dropping out of school by the fifth grade. Musically, he switched from drums to piano in 1922, learning the instrument at first while working as a water boy in a construction site in a church.
Pete was about seven years older than Big Joe, but Turner would remember in Kansas City, “When I was sixteen or seventeen, I started hanging around the Backbiter’s Club which was on Independence Avenue. I sat outside and listened to Pete Johnson play the piano.” Turner would eventually convince the club owner that he was old enough to work in the bar and would make himself popular by singing along with Pete as he was doing his chores; Joe’s voice was so strong he needed no microphone to be heard above the din of the place.
Once Prohibition ended on December 5th 1933, Turner and Johnson joined up with drummer Murl Johnson and did a Midwest tour including Chicago and St. Louis, but found the appeal of their hometown Kansas City too strong to withstand. KC was overflowing with jobs for musicians as it had pretty much ignored Prohibition and continued strong afterward. The boys often played at the Sunset Club, the home of Count Basie, also known as the afterhours place to be for the elite jammers. Joe again, “… there wouldn’t be nobody in there except the bartender, waiter and the boss, and we’d start playing about three o’clock in the morning. . . It would be in the still of the morning and the boss man would set up pitchers of corn-likker and we’d rock. Just about the time we’d be starting to have a good time, here would come the high hats and we’d set the joint on fire then and really have a ball ‘til ten or eleven o’clock in the day. Sleep? Who wants to sleep with all that Blues jumpin’ around?” Their three piece group grew to a seven piece and there were even occasional broadcasts from the club.
In January 1936, Hammond came to Kansas City to bring Count Basie’s band back to New York and he offered a position to Turner as vocalist, but Big Joe told him he and Johnson were a team but would go in partnership with Pete. Hammond was able to find work for the two that summer and Johnson remembered, “We played at the Famous Door for some months. The great Hot Lips Page was at Kelly’s Stable and we tried out for a job to join him. But it was a bad year and the wrong time of year at that -- so we went back to K.C.”
Johnson was no stranger to recording studios throughout the 40s, including January 1946 for the album House Rent Party where he starts off playing solo, then adds some of Kansas City’s best players (including J.C. Higginbotham and J.C. Heard) for one song each before bringing them all back for an ensemble jam. Pete based himself out of Los Angeles from 1947 until he moved to Buffalo in 1950, but by then was in little demand. He spent most of 1953 washing ice cream trucks and playing in a trio on the weekends. 1954 began no better as he washed cars in a mortuary for $25 a week, but in July he got a six week booking as piano player in the lounge of the St. Louis Forest Park Hotel, which even included some Saturday afternoon broadcasts. He also made a couple of private recordings during this time at the house parties of a friend, Bill Atkinson.
Pete was in Europe in 1958 as part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, then returned stateside and played the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, where he was part of the backing for Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry and Big Maybelle, but was partially paralyzed later in the year by the first of several strokes, and diabetes began to affect his vision. Jazz Report magazine ran several fundraising record auctions and a friend, Hans Maurer, released The Pete Johnson Story with proceeds from both going to Pete. A 1964 article in Blues Unlimited pointed out Johnson’s inability to recover most of his royalties and, in June, ASCAP accepted him as a member, thus facilitating easier acquisition of at least some of his rightful earnings on a regular schedule.
Pete’s last performance, and his eighth at the Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1967, was reviewed by Down Beat’s Dan Morgenstern. "Then for the concert's most moving moment, Lieberson (the MC) escorted Pete Johnson on stage and introduced him as one of the participants in the original Spirituals to Swing and the greatest boogie-woogie pianist. Johnson had suffered a series of paralytic strokes and had not played piano for many years. His old buddy, Turner, took him by the hand, and for a moment the two middle-aged men looked touchingly like little boys. Turner dedicated 'Roll 'Em Pete' to his old friend, as Lieberson and Johnson were about to leave the stage. Instead, they stopped and the pianist seated himself next to Bryant at the piano and began to play the treble part of his old showpiece, Bryant handling the bass. Johnson was a bit shaky but game, gaining in confidence as the number built in intensity." After this last hurrah, Pete died two months later at the age of 62 in Meyer Hospital, Buffalo, New York, in March 1967.
*************************Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20th 1915 to the traveling missionary and gospel shouter, Katie Bell Nubin, known on the church circuit as Mother Bell. By the age of six she was adept at guitar and piano and was performing tunes like I Looked Down the Line and The Day is Past and Gone at her mother’s conventions. The family moved to Chicago in 1921 and both the vocals and the instrumental work of the young Miss Nubin reflected a Blues influence while the strength of her showmanship was not the norm in Gospel. The family was devoted to the Church of God in Christ, which encouraged rhythmic expression and dancing, had mixed gender choirs and even women preachers
In 1934 Rosetta married Pastor Thorpe, deacon of the Pittsburgh Pentecostal Church; and the family formed a string trio with Thorpe playing ukulele, Rosetta on guitar and Mother Bell switching between banjo and mandolin. The group took to the road until Thorpe dropped from sight. At some point, Rosetta changed her name to Tharpe.In the autumn of 1938, Rosetta became a featured singer in Cab Calloway’s Revue at the Cotton Club, then in October signed with J. Mayo Williams and Decca Records. Her first two releases, Rock Me and This Train (both recorded October 31st but issued separately) became the biggest Gospel hits of the 30s. Things moved quickly for Rosetta as producer John Hammond invited her to join in as part of his December 1938 historical Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, a two day event that featured the best of the Black musicians of the day.
Rosetta followed her fall season at the Cotton Club as part of Calloway’s Revue with three more seasons there, starting in March 1939 with tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, then summer with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy and winding up in autumn on a lineup with Louis Armstrong and, once again, Mr. Bojangles. More and more, Rosetta was becoming capable of maintaining an unusual balance of keeping her Gospel audience while at the same time increasingly appealing to a white crowd. While her Spiritual followers were not thrilled with their music being played in this house of lesser morals, Life magazine did a feature about the conflict of playing in church on Sunday and then in this den of inequity throughout the week. She was back with Calloway again in December 1940, this time at the Apollo Theater.
Rosetta took her guitar into Decca’s studios for solo sessions three straight times, the last being March 13th 1941, but on June 27th that year she was recorded as one of the featured vocalists for the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. It is my belief that she was never represented better than with Millinder’s men, even though she was accorded only one or two songs on each of the three Decca dates. The Millinder ensemble, though somewhat overlooked by history, was one of the hardest driving and most R&B oriented of the Big Bands but, even with their enthusiastic occasional handclapping and vocal backing, there is no question Tharpe’s voice was sufficiently strong to be the dominant sound. Unlike Rosetta, who already had established herself as a popular Spiritual artist, singer Wynonie Harris used his initial success with Lucky to launch one of the most massive R&B Jump Blues careers ever, his popularity perhaps falling only behind that of Louis Jordan or Big Joe Turner, and saxophonist \ vocalist Bull Moose Jackson found success on his own even while still providing the same services in his time working with Millinder, which spanned from 1945 into 1948.
One shortcoming of the Millinder recordings is that the sister’s acoustic guitar is often left out in favor of the electric guitar of Trevor Bacon, who was also one of the featured singers for the band. Decca had Rosetta solo in the studio a couple of more times between Millinder sessions
In August of 1941 Tharpe and Millinder did The Lonesome Road, one of their at least three released Soundies, kind of a video jukebox of the early 40s that could be found in cafes, lounges and bars. On September 5th 1941, the Millinder band was back in the Decca studio and one of Rosetta’s tracks was a remake of one of those Soundies, Shout, Sister, Shout, and it became her first to make the Harlem Hit Parade at #21 in July of 1942. For her next Millinder session, she set down her acoustic in favor of an electric guitar for That’s All, a repeat of a song from her very first studio date. December saw her back for four more solo acoustic tunes to wind up a busy and productive 1941.For their February 18th session, Millinder had written I Want a Tall Skinny Papa which Rosetta sang all the way to #13 in August 1942. Even though she was always a full-fledged and possibly the most important member of the Millinder revue, she was still able to carve out some time to go on her own, such as having a weeklong residence at the Café Society Downtown or a performance with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, both in 1942.
June 10th was her last opportunity in the studio, with four more solo Gospel numbers, before American Federation of Musicians union President James C. Petrillo shut down all commercial recording on August 1st. I always like to hear the recordings made specifically for those deployed in World War II, particularly because most of them took place during this union ban, and the first three songs in our initial Tharpe set come from the Armed Forces Radio Service’s Jubilee broadcast of July or August 1943. The music was transcribed to V-discs for distribution and whether these 15” platters similar to 78s were made available directly to the G.I.s or kept in libraries for easy access I am not sure, but I have read that Rosetta was only one of two black Gospel artists to record to the discs.
The Jubilee broadcasts began in 1942 and were held in the Los Angeles vicinity. Following her first Jubilee session in August of 1943, Rosetta stayed in Hollywood to fully pursue her own career in the West Coast clubs as Millinder returned to his stronghold in New York City. Within the next couple of months she did more Jubilee dates with Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five and the big band of Erskine Hawkins. After one more broadcasts with undisclosed backing, probably Noble Sissel’s Orchestra, Tharpe returned to New York in November 1943 and, since Rosetta was a solo act, Decca brought her into the studio for four songs on November 26th and one more on December 15th, all in defiance of the Petrillo ban.
Throughout WWII she toured with Gospel quartets, her favorite being the Dixie Hummingbirds. In April 1944, she made one last Jubilee session, possibly with Jack McVea’s small combo but sounding, more likely, again with the full band backing of Millinder and his Orchestra. On April 21st Decca recorded one solo track and four more September 11th, but these would be the last of Rosetta’s recordings by herself. In between, she spent the summer in residence at the Café Society Downtown, a popular club with a racially mixed audience.
In the meantime, the big band craze was dying down and many of the best black musicians were moving to either R&B or Bop. However, Tharpe found a solution in the Sammy Price Trio which not only better fit the times but also brought out her guitar talents in an extremely complementary way. Price was a longtime standout pianist, born in Texas but establishing himself in the Kansas area in the 1930s and ultimately becoming Decca’s house pianist, talent scout (it is worthy of note that Sam had brought Blind Lemon Jefferson to the attention of Paramount back in the 20s) and generally the man to go to ever since signing on with the label in 1937 when he moved to New York. Price led his Texas Blusicians in backing many of the studio’s vocalists such as Blue Lu Barker, Trixie Smith and Christine Chapman. His teaming up with Rosetta was the first time a piano and guitar combination had been used in a Gospel setting. There was even a familiar face on the first date as Price’s bassist, Abe Bolar, had been part of Millinder’s band going back to her very first session with the orchestra. The oft-recorded Harold “Doc” West was behind the drums for those four tracks laid down September 22nd, which produced Strange Things Happen Every Day and Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread, together climbing to #2 on the Harlem Hit Parade by April 1945. While the Five Blind Boys, the Bells of Joy and the Edwin Hawkins Singers all later cracked the Hit Parade, these Gospel groups only charted once whereas Tharpe would show up several more times. Rosetta would now stick to Gospel tunes, using Price’s trio almost exclusively until 1954, although the individual players would vary.
I had long been curious to hear a good example of Sammy Price and I bought one disappointing CD years ago, but this four disc set from Proper Records, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Original Soul Sister, has provided that in spades, as well as the label’s usual excellent biographical and discography notations. Our entire second Rosetta set, recorded between 1944 and 1948, is her with the Sammy Price Trio which, when backing Tharpe, always had Sammy’s piano with drums and bass, the smaller group giving a better chance for Tharpe’s guitar work to shine. After two more sessions with Price, on July 1st 1947 Rosetta laid down two songs that would be performing favorites, her best version of This Train and then sharing the microphone with Madame Marie Knight on the other three numbers, including the traditional Didn’t It Rain. Knight was a Sanctified shouter born in Florida but based out of Newark, New Jersey, who had just made her recording debut in autumn the year before and would meet Tharpe in the studio a few more times in 1947.
One of those times was again in July while they were performing in Los Angeles and the pair was with Downbeat for a rerecording of This Train and When I Come to the End of My Journey, songs they had just laid down for Decca earlier in the month; no wonder that by mid-December the court ordered all records and masters had to be destroyed despite Rosetta’s using the name Sister Katy Marie.
By the time of their next session, November 27th 1947, the pair of vocalists were now used to accompanying each other and handled the duets more deftly, with Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air) climbing to #6 on the Top Ten chart in December, a particular favorite of mine worthy of closing this show. Three tracks laid down with the Price trio November 24th and four more each of the next two days … it was obvious the record companies were building up stock to last through the second Petrillo ban due to begin the first minute of 1948. Precious Lord, recorded the last of these days and shared with Knight, reached #13 in July 1948.
In 1951, Rosetta married Russell Morrison, who had been manager of the Ink Spots, in an elaborate ceremony where 25,000 guests paid to be included and were entertained by noted Gospel acts like the Sunset Harmonizers, the Harmonizing Four and the Reverend Samuel Kelsey.
Tharpe and Knight still toured and recorded together until 1953, when the pair released some Blues songs that met with criticism and indignation from her religious fans. The two parted ways with Marie going full-bore (although unsuccessfully) in an R&B direction but Rosetta immediately returning to her church roots. By 1956 Tharpe moved from Decca to Mercury, but still she was unable to counter her embrace of the Blues. With concerts fewer and farther in between and record sales dipping, Rosetta was happy to let one of her French fans arrange a European tour lasting almost all of 1957.
It took until 1960 that her image became less tarnished and she made an appearance at the Apollo Theater on the same bill as two prominent Gospel acts, the Caravans and James Cleveland, but her voice was not as crisp as it had been. In 1967 she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and continued working the Southern church circuit and European tours, including one package in 1970 with Muddy Waters During one of these performances, she complained of a sudden, deep chill and was promptly sent back to Philadelphia where she suffered a stroke. Her speech was hindered and her legs were affected to the point one had to be amputated.
Rosetta stayed home for a year recuperating while her husband toured with the Dixie Hummingbirds, but did small tours in 1972 and 1973. Three years since her last studio session, she went in to record for Savoy on October 8th 1973 and suffered another stroke. Sister Rosetta Tharpe lay in a coma for a few hours but succumbed the next morning, October 9th 1973.
*************************From that same box set that provided us with most of our opening set, there is a disc of Charlie Christian at Minton’s; indeed, that is the title of one of the albums it contains. It shows the original electric guitar Jazz maestro in a live setting recorded in May 1941 at the New York City Jazz nightclub popular among listeners and jammers alike. Christian was, of course, a member of Benny Goodman’s Swing Orchestra and a key component when Benny broke it down into a small combo as well as with Benny’s vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band, but here Charlie is the highlight of an all star ensemble whose 5-10 pieces most notably include, in varying combinations, drummers Kenny Clarke or Harold “Doc” West, pianist Thelonius Monk, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie or Hot Lips Page and tenor sax man Don Byas.
*************************I was unaware that Vancouver harmonica man Harpdog Brown would be coming down to the Bay Area again this week with his guitarist Jordie Edmonds until hours before my last show but, since this grouping is already a hodgepodge of reasons for artists’ inclusion, I decided to make a little room for them today. I had a lot of fun with the pair back in November so it was kind of a no brainer. I already had their two most recent albums and figured I still had some good music left over, but you guys should know that I pretty much already picked over the uptempo stuff, so Dog was kind enough to send me one of his older releases and am I happy with what I got.
The album which you’ll be hearing a few selections from today, Home is Where the Harp Is, is a live recording which wound up garnishing the Muddy Award for the Best Northwest Blues release of 1994 by Portland’s Cascade Blues Association as well as a Juno nomination for Canada’s Best Blues / Gospel Recording, and the album lives up to its accolades. I wish I had room for more tunes today, but that just leaves me with more for their next California visit. Obviously, Dog has been playing some good Blues for a long time now.
The CD was recorded May 27th and 28th 1994 at Portland’s Candlelight Café and Bar when Dog’s band, the Bloodhounds, was made up of drummer Guido Thylmann, bassist Pete Turland and guitarist Curtis Scarrow. Then, as now, Harpdog supplies lead vocals and harmonica, and the four piece is still his preferred lineup. You can catch Dog and his guitarist Jordie at Biscuits and Blues, 401 Mason Street in San Francisco with performances at 7:30 and 9:30PM, Thursday March 29th, in other words the day after this show. Filling out the rhythm section will be a couple of Californians,, drummer Jimmy Morello and bassist Greg Roberts.
If you missed the essay from last year, you can find out pretty much whatever you want to know about Harpdog by going into the archives at key2highway.blogspot and scroll down to November 29th 2017. There you can still find my writings going all the way back to 2014. enjoy
*************************Since it is still relatively new, I thought I’d mention that KKUP is now streaming on the internet and, while it is still in a developing stage, we have been putting out the word. I’m not all of that good with high-tech stuff, but it seems pretty easy to access. If you go to our website at KKUP.org you will see on the home page a strip of options immediately above the pictures of the musicians the next to the last option being LISTEN ONLINE. By clicking this, it brings up a choice of desktop or mobile. I can only speak for the desktop but after maybe a minute I was receiving a crystal clear feed. As already mentioned, this is still a work in progress and we are currently limited to a finite number of listeners at any one time. I mention this so you will be aware to turn off the application when you are not actually listening. (I put the player in my favorites bar for the easiest of access.) Now we can reach our listeners in Los Gatos and Palo Alto, even my family in Canada. Let your friends elsewhere know they can now listen to your favorite station, and while they have the home page open they can check out our schedule.
*************************Swannee River Boogie
St. Louis Blues Boogie
J.J. Boogie (Just Jazz Boogie)
South Side Shuffle (with Big Joe Turner)
Pete Johnson 14mins
Down By the RiversideRock Daniel
I Want a Tall Skinny Papa
Trouble in Mind
Shout, Sister, Shout
The Lonesome Road
God Don’t Like It
What Is the Soul of a Man
Sister Rosetta Tharpe 30mins
Charlie’s Choice / Swing to Bop (Topsy)Stompin’ at the Savoy
Up on Teddy’s Hill (Honeysuckle Rose)
Guy’s Got to Go (I Got Rhythm)
Lips Flips / On with Charlie Christian
(Stompin’ at the Savoy)
Down on Teddy’s Hill / Pagin’ Dr. Christian
(I Got Rhythm-A-Ning)
Charlie Christian 33mins
Rocket 88She Felt Too Good
Nobody But You
Home is Where the Harp Is
My Heart is on the Line
Harpdog Brown 26mins
Boogie WoogieThe Dive Bomber Boogie
Boo-Woo (with Harry James)
Climbin’ and Screamin’
Pete Johnson 15mins
Singing in My SoulStrange Things Happen Every Day
Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread
The Lord Follows Me
I Heard My Mother Call My Name
Jesus is Here to Stay
Teach Me to Be Right
Didn’t it Rain
Oh, When I Come to the End of My Journey
Up Above My Head
Sister Rosetta Tharpe 37mins