Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Up Above My Head

I first saw this video nearly two years ago when John Sellards sent me a link to this song. I had heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but don’t think I had ever seen any of her videos. I was blown away by her performance. She was between 48 and 52 years of age when she recorded these two videos of the song she and Marie Knight recorded in the late 1940s for Decca Records.

Sister Tharpe is joined by the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Choir on a TV Special from circa 1963. Note she changed the lyrics for this TV presentation from “I really do believe that there’s a heaven somewhere” to “I really do believe that there’s joy somewhere.”

She is just an amazing guitarist and is playing a rare polar white Gibson Les Paul Custom with gold hardware. Gibson only made this model with the Les Paul name from 1961 to 1963. The Les Paul guitar that was popular in the 1950s was losing market share to Fender’s guitar models such as the Stratocaster. Although the denser Les Paul had dropped in popularity, the Les Paul brand name was still viable and Gibson applied it to a new double cutaway design that they began producing in 1961.

After Les Paul complained about not approving this new model of the guitar, Gibson removed his name in 1963 and marketed the guitar as the SG – or “Solidbody Guitar.” The SGs that were originally branded as “Les Paul” models are highly sought after as collectibles. Recently, I saw a Les Paul Custom like Rosetta Tharpe played for sale for $60,000. That’s quite a mark-up for a guitar that originally cost $395 in 1961; however, in 1961, not many folks could afford $375 for an electric guitar.

1961 Gibson Catalog

Called the “fretless wonder,” you can see the ease of playability as Rosetta flies up and down the fretboard. Recently, Gibson has reissued the Les Paul Custom (with the LP name attached). Although you could probably pick one up for $3800, the list price is $4495.00. Again, the mark up is incredible.

While it’s not seen on this video, the other films from the same session show her amplifier – a Gibson GA-8 Discoverer or GA-8T Discoverer Tremelo. This is a great little amp as I have the sister version produced by Gibson subsidiary Epiphone – the EA-35T Devon Tremelo. Although the wattage of these amps was low (10 watts through a Jensen 12 inch speaker) by comparison to Fender's Twin-12, they scream. I bought mine for $60 alongside Route 30 east of Chester, WV during the summer of 1975.

A guy had a table selling various and sundry items to pay some bills. I went back across the river to East Liverpool, Ohio and borrowed a guitar from Rick Cowles to see if the amp really worked.  The seller had a generator present and the amp worked like a charm. I believe my Epiphone was made in the late fifties and it is identical to the Gibson model with the exception of having gray Toltex instead of white and the obvious Epiphone name plate. I have no idea why the Epiphone model numbers ran higher - but all of the Epiphone amps were listed under higher catalog numbers for some reason or another.

This second solo rendition of the same song has Rosetta playing a Gibson Barney Kessel model – man, did she have great taste in instruments or what. Considered a jazz guitar, it was one of the series of custom models Gibson made via artist endorsement during the 1960s.

The Barney Kessel model joined the likes of other signature models named for Les Paul, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, and Trini Lopez. In the 1970s, Gibson produced the Howard Roberts acoustic/electric guitar. She plays the guitar unamplified.


  1. Interesting writing. Thnx! You probably know that Epiphone has the sg-model reissued as G-400 Custom Ivory White, without the vibrola.. I own one, signed by both Jan Akkerman and Paul Gilbert. Plays perfect, but has the typical sg-problem of unbalance.. that's probably why Sister Tharpe has a country-style rope attached to the head..
    Keep rocking, :-) HL