While visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, Randy Johnson, the creator of such seminal works as Always Patsy Cline and A Night Janis Joplin, came upon a book titled Shout Sister Shout! Randy’s first reaction, “That’s a perfect title for a musical.” The fact that the book was a biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe who is often referred to as the “godmother of Rock and Roll” probably set more than a few wheels in motion.
Born in the deep south in 1915, at an early age Sister Rosetta was profoundly influenced by the gospel music which so permeated the services that were led by her mother, Katie Bell, a powerful evangelical preacher. Even before she was a teenager, Rosetta and her mother moved to Chicago where they became involved with The Church of God In Christ (COGIC), part of an African American outgrowth of the Southern Baptist Religion. This particular sect had a strong tradition of incorporating rhythmic musical expression into the church services.
This Chicago church was much like the mega churches of today, but unique, in that it was a large congregation comprised of African American native to the region, but also migrants from the south, places like the Mississippi Delta and Saint Louis. A population looking for better opportunity, from regions that had developed their own strain of music known as The Blues.
It was the fusion of traditional gospel and R&B that became the trademark of Sister Rosetta, who by the mid 20’s was garnering fame as a musical prodigy. She sang, she played the piano and she played the guitar. By 1938, at the age of 23, she cut her first record under Decca Records label in New York City. The story of her life from that point on is the essence of Shout Sister Shout!
Listening to the music, even in the recordings going back into the 30’s there is no mistaking the seeds that would so profoundly impact Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and many others. Her guitar playing was impeccable – if you close your eyes, it’s not hard to think of Eric Clapton.
So Randy Johnson, who has made a career of bringing music legends to the stage, sat down along with Cheryl West and began creating a show from the inspiration of the biography, Shout Sister Shout!. Along the way, they enlisted some remarkable talent, Melissa Manchester, who created some of the music for other characters in the show, and Nicole Chapman to play the starring role as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Randy’s experience in the field of musical legends is pretty deep. Both as a producer and a director, Randy has covered many legends. Aside from those already noted, he’s done shows on Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Carly Simon, as well as Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The last he no doubt inspired by the fact that Keely Smith was his godmother.
Music has been both a transformative and inspiring part of Randy’s Life, some of his early memories are of listening as his parents played Dave Brubeck albums in his infancy. His first concert at 17 was seeing Sarah Vaughn playing at the Troubadour.
Almost immediately after graduating from USC, he then cut his teeth in theatre by producing the West Coast Premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart with Richard Dreyfus and Kathy Bates.
All along the journey, which he admits to having given him a pretty nice life, he has listened to music. “Each decade, from earliest recordings to now, has their own rhythms. Each era has a different sound. And it’s the subconscious of our thoughts, feelings and actions of each era… music is the story of each generation. It speaks of the times, the sorrows, the hopes. Yes, Music is the map of every generation”
So Shout Sister Shout is a very natural progression for Randy – Sister Rosetta was one of those touchstones that crossed generations, cultures and races. It’s an opportunity for us to look at how we got to where we are. The trials of the times, segregation, homophobia, women in power, moral judgement, were all aspects of Sister Rosetta Tharpes’ life. Her perseverance and success are a testimonial to the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the resolve of voice.
Playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, July 26th through August 20th
For tickets go to Tickets.
For a beautiful documentary on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, visit Sister Rosetta Tharpe