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Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
By Gayle F. Wald
Beacon Press, $26

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was, in the words of the great Dixie Hummingbirds singer Ira Tucker, "a ball of energy." A gospel star that transcended the genre, Tharpe didn't fit the stereotype of a prim churchgoer moaning solemn songs of worship. Rather, she was a virtuosic electric-guitar player and a fervent spiritual vocalist whose onstage theatrics would inspire a generation of rock-and-roll and R&B stars. Author Gayle F. Wald's immaculately researched biography unpacks the complex and often contradictory life and legacy of Tharpe, from her earliest efforts as a child performer to her influence on everyone from Elvis Presley to Isaac Hayes. Born Rosetta Atkins in Arkansas in 1915, Tharpe was a naturally gifted musician (she once referred to herself as an autodidact) who, in the late 1930s, became the first significant gospel recording star; her brand of tent-revival charm appealed to church and secular audiences. While her crossover to the pop market and nightclub society made her an anathema among religious purists, Tharpe insisted on keeping one foot in each world, delighting audiences with her flamboyant sense of showmanship. Performing in sequined dresses and with a flashy guitar-picking style, she knew what the public - including the 20,000 or so paying guests who filled a Washington, D.C., stadium to witness her third wedding ceremony and subsequent concert in 1951 - ­wanted. Although her fortunes waxed and waned over her five-decade career, Tharpe's passion never dimmed. Disabled in her final years, she continued to work until she died of a stroke in 1973. Her talent and charisma inspired musicians, critics, and fans who rank her among the most formative figures in the history of both rock and roll and modern gospel. Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University, doesn't rely on a dry academic approach in her narrative, but lets Tharpe's blazing trail of recordings and performances come alive across the pages. Having previously penned an insightful essay for a 2003 Tharpe tribute disc, Wald synthesizes a mix of new interviews and archival resources to craft a biography that's as thrilling as its subject. - Bob Bozorgmehr