The 33rd annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is due to take place in Cleveland on April 14th, and among some of the more predictable household names, such as Bon Jovi and Dire Straits, there’ll be little-known blues and gospel artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Set to be honoured as an ‘early influencer’, Tharpe has often been credited by blues rock legends like Jeff Beck and Keith Richards as a major inspiration. With that in mind, it seems an opportune time to revisit some of the most influential, groundbreaking albums that not only helped define blues rock, but came to change the face of music itself.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe – The Lonesome Road (1941)
Naturally, we start with the godmother of rock and roll herself, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and her seminal album, The Lonesome Road. Released by Decca in 1941, songs like ‘Rock Me’ became instant hits. Tharpe’s bold arrangements and unique rhythmic accompaniment would later come to define early rock and roll, and in the opening guitar licks of ‘This Train’ we hear the unmistakable echoes of Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash.
Undoubtedly a trailblazer, Tharpe’s unique sound, evident here on guitar-heavy tracks like ‘Rock Me’ and ‘That’s All’, were years ahead of their time, and would have a profound effect on the rise of electric blues and blues rock. As one of the first artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, Tharpe’s dynamic, often primal performances were the inspiration for blues rock legends such as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, both citing one gig in particular in Manchester as a real eureka moment.
Tharpe’s contribution to the birth of rock and roll and blues rock cannot be overstated; we can trace a direct line from Tharpe to early rock and roll pioneers like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, right through the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to heavy metal and hard rock bands like Iron Maiden and Bon Jovi. Playing at a time when guitars were still seen as a novelty, Tharpe’s instinctive, distinctive style helped propel guitar music into the mainstream. One reason why today rock and pop pervades every aspect of our culture, informing the zeitgeist to such an extent that we have rock stars acting as UN ambassadors, and cutting edge bitcoin casinos like Bitcasino, where you can see a Guns N’ Roses-themed slot machine.
Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (1956)
Few albums have had more of an impact than Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut. Born out of the gospel and soul of Presley’s southern roots, this is rockabilly at its frenetic best. Released in March 1956 to widespread hysteria, the album spent ten weeks at the top of the US charts, becoming the first rock and roll album to reach number one, and the first to sell over a million copies.
Famously taken from sessions at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis, the album is a collection of cover versions, hand-picked and arranged by Presley himself, and infused with his own inimitable style. There’s an eclectic mix of musical influences here, with rock and roll staples like ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and blues standards such as Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ and Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’. Presley makes them all his own, imbuing his songs with a raw energy and spontaneity that leaps off the record. Take his cover of Carl Perkins ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, injected with a lightning tempo, three-octave vocal and driving guitar rhythm. A far cry from Perkins’ ponderous original. Elvis Presley’s 1956 opus would inspire a generation, and his effortless charm and unique vocal delivery would define rock and roll for the best part of a decade.
The Doors – LA Woman (1971)
By the time they recorded their final album, The Doors had bled the rock and roll experience dry. In less than four years they’d won critical acclaim, courted controversy, and been all but written off by the music press. The Doors were many things – rock and roll, avant-garde, poetry and performance art, but lead singer Jim Morrison had always identified as a blues singer, and LA Woman sees the band revisit their blues rock roots. This is The Doors at their bluesy best, stripped to the bone, raw and uncompromising. Morrison’s lyrics, always poetic and wonderfully evocative, reach new intellectual and spiritual heights on songs like ‘L’America’, and at 27 his voice has matured, and his rasping, guttural vocals give the record a much grittier, grainier feel than previous offerings.
The record opens with ‘The Changeling’ and we know from the first few bars, as Morrison roars “Get Loose!” that we’re in for something special. Robbie Krieger’s bottleneck guitar licks crackle and whine through the entire piece, and inspired solos on tracks like ‘Been Down So Long’ surely cement him as one of the most underrated guitarists of his generation. LA Woman was famously recorded in the band’s old rehearsal space, and this raw, do-it-yourself attitude sizzles out of the amps, with beautifully improvised pieces such as Morrison’s ‘singing guitar’ solo on ‘Cars Hiss By My Window’. The Doors always possessed a unique symbiosis, displaying an almost telepathic understanding on stage and in the studio, and this is never more apparent than on title track ‘LA Woman’, as drummer John Densmore’s rising tempo beautifully punctuates Morrison’s growling vocals as he evokes the dark seamy underbelly of downtown LA, with its: “Cops in cars,” and “topless bars.” The album culminates with the brilliantly brooding ‘Riders on the Storm’, and Ray Manzarek’s haunting keyboard and Krieger’s wailing guitar seem somehow to foreshadow Morrison’s death a few months later; and Morrison’s own whispered dialogue in the final few bars could almost be his spirit calling back to us from the ether.
When the likes of Bon Jovi, Dire Straits and the Moody Blues line up to receive their honours on April 14th, they might whisper a quiet refrain themselves; a belated thank you to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of rock; for without early innovators like Tharpe there’d be no blues rock, no rock and roll, and perhaps no popular music at all.