Behind the Music: The Godmother of Rock and Roll

By Eric Heiligenstein, MD (aka Too Sick Charlie. )

Rock-n-Roll was invented by a woman who played the electric guitar in ways very few people could have ever imagined.

The Godmother of rock music is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her Gibson guitar and voice changed the trajectory of rock & roll, blues, and soul music. She influenced individual musicians such as Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, while her guitar style had a significant impact on Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Keith Richards and innumerable others.

Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915, her parents were both passionate about music. She grew up in the Church of God in Christ where her mother was the preacher. As in many Black churches, religious worship was conducted through musical expression. Rosetta was described as a music prodigy and at age four she began singing and playing her guitar in the church.

She later traveled with her mother around the South, performing in churches as Little Rosetta Nubin, billed as the “Singing and Guitar Playing Miracle.” She became Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1938, after a brief marriage to her first husband Thomas J. Tharpe ended. She then moved with her  mother to New York City, by way of Chicago. (Tharpe and her husband legally divorced in 1943.) The first songs she recorded on Decca Records in New York, “My Man and I,” “That’s All,” “The Lonesome Road,” and “Rock Me,” were instant hits and made her the first commercially successful gospel artist.

She later began performing in Harlem nightclubs where she played gospel songs with astonishing self assurance and flair. By the 1940s, she distorted the sound of her guitar, a technique that was completely original at the time and would be copied by legions of rock guitarists in the future. A woman playing guitar and singing spiritual songs in nightclubs was unheard of. Gospel singers didn’t cross over to secular music. You were one or the other. She did it anyway and lost many of her religious fans.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe continued to tour and make new music throughout the fifties and into the sixties. In May 1964 she performed a legendary show as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. Filmed at an abandoned railroad station in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, it was broadcast nationwide in England. The young audience sat on one platform while the performers played from the other side of the tracks. The program- makers placed tubs, barrels and other items on the platform to apparently resemble the porch of a southern shack.

The producers arranged a tacky entrance for her. She pulls up in a horse and buggy and New Orleans jazz singer Cousin Joe Pleasant helps her out of the carriage. Dressed in a luxurious fur coat, Tharpe was rock-and-roll royalty whether people knew it or not. She then walks across the edge of the platform and picks up her guitar.

Tharpe hits a chord but is in the wrong key. She turns to the band for the right key and then the magic happens. Tharpe hadn’t planned to sing the gospel number “Didn’t It Rain”, but due to a downpour that preceded her entrance, she made the impromptu decision and the producers agreed. As this performance demonstrates, her voice, charisma and guitar playing made her one of the most influential and under-rated musical talents of all time.

Nine years later at age 57, Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke and complications of diabetes. She was buried in Philadelphia in an unmarked grave. A headstone erected decades after her death bears these words: “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.” She was posthumously inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Performance link for “Didn’t It Rain”

Watch her move at 3:30 of the video. If this doesn’t give you chills, then I can’t help you… “Didn’t It Rain”, sometimes titled as “Oh, Didn’t It Rain”, is a spiritual about Noah’s flood. In 1919 it appeared as sheet music in an arrangement for voice and piano by Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866–1949).
If you’re like me and were stunned after watching her virtuosity, here’s another performance link for her hit “That’s All” (date unknown but likely 1940’s). Her guitar intro is ample proof of her genius.

Somebody Knocking on my Door: A look behind the music

By Eric Heiligenstein, MD 
(AKA Too Sick Charlie and His One Man Band;

Chester Arthur Burnett (Howling Wolf) was born on June 10, 1910, in West Point, Mississippi. He was in his early forties when he made his first records for Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips later said that Wolf was the most arresting figure he ever saw play music, and that no one could transform themselves more completely than Wolf in the span of two-and-a-half minutes. 

Wolf is widely considered one the greatest blues singer of the 20th century. Phillips said of his voice, “It’s where the soul of man never dies”.

He was also phenomenal on stage. His hulking six-foot-six frame and intense glowering stare belied some silky moves. He was taught harmonica by his brother-in-law Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and guitar from his mentor Charlie Patton. And he performed with the best musicians, in large part because he was known to pay well and on time.

Like many prominent blues musicians of his era, Wolf participated in the American Folk Blues Festival. He was in the 1964 tour of Europe and the UK playing to large, appreciative crossover crowds.

In segregated America though, blues performed by black musicians was rarely considered 1960’s prime time television or radio material. Teen idols, doo-wop groups, and surf music dominated the Billboard charts. Popular white bands regularly appeared on television shows such as American Band Stand, Where the Action Is, and Shindig.

Shindig was an American musical variety show that debuted in September 1964 and ran through January 1966. On May 20, 1965, a relatively new act from England was scheduled to appear. They were called the Rolling Stones. It would be the band’s first appearance on American television.

The Rolling Stones, who’d enjoyed a #1 hit in England with their cover of Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” however said they would perform only if Wolf or Muddy Waters were also booked. Wolf was available, and he made the most of it. Many consider his performance of “How Many More Years” as one of the greatest moments in television history. It was also his first performance on a national television broadcast. Click here to see the Video.

Author Peter Guralnick says “I’ve listed it as one of the Top Ten TV moments of all time, one of the most significant moments in cultural history– part of a wonderful movement that couldn’t be turned back.” Buddy Guy later commented that it “broke through a boundary line that no one thought could be crossed.”

This was clearly new ground for media. Discrimination and racism widely existed in mainstream television in the early 1960’s. Blacks mostly portrayed servant roles and performed racist caricatures. Only a handful of black actors had recurring, supporting roles in other shows. 

Musicians faced the longstanding racist fears about the social mixing of white and black youth and the seduction of white women by black men. As a result, black musicians took numerous measures to appear respectable and non-threatening to whites. And yet Wolf didn’t hold back.

We are also enchanted by Brian Jones’ starstruck introduction of Wolf before his performance. Comments that convey that he saw the importance of the moment as well. Jones’ biographer Peter Trynka stated that the show constituted “a life-changing moment, both for the American teenagers clustered round the TV in their living rooms, and for a generation of blues performers who had been stuck in a cultural ghetto.”

The performance represents more than the “British Invasion embrace” of the blues. It shows Wolf’s mainstream breakout, and the Stones paying tribute to a founding father of rock and roll, an act of humility from a band not especially known or appreciated for that quality.

American teens were just starting to understood the emergence of the civil rights movement; but they could fully understand the importance of an English rock star who described the mountainous, gravel-voiced bluesman as a ‘hero’ and sat smiling at his feet.

Wolf died in 1976 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Founder in 1991

A Special Message of Hope and Promise of Renewal from MBS President Shari Davis

A special hope and promise of renewal
By Shari Davis
Madison Blues Society Board President
Shari Davis and the Hot Damn! Blues Band

President Shari Davis

Greetings, fellow Blues lovers,

Here we are on the brink of summer – always a welcome time in Wisconsin – and now more than ever. Summer 2021 holds a special hope and promise of renewal. It has been a long, strange year of social distancing and no live music! We cautiously venture out again to see our friends and families in person and enjoy the activities we have missed. Before we proceed with announcements and other news, I want to take a moment to reflect.

There is a saying, usually considered a curse, of unproven origin. You are probably familiar with it: “May you live in interesting times.” Those times have arrived. (This is not exactly news.)

We are recently marking the anniversaries of three events which have had a profound impact on our country and collective psyche.

The first is the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. The stay-at-home order was first issued on March 24, 2020, went into effect shortly thereafter and was only recently lifted – at last! (We hope it lasts.)

The second is the 100th anniversary last month of the May 21, 1921, race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and complete destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood which came to be known as Black Wall Street. I must confess, this came as a surprise to me – not that it happened – but that I had never learned of it until now. It is one of those things that was not mentioned in any history book when I was in school.

The third is the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The outcry, not only from people in cities across our nation, but around the world was a remarkable response in the midst of a global pandemic.

These things happened and are happening. There is much healing needed right now. Today is the time to engage in a new dialog, to reach out to our neighbors in the Black community and have the difficult and uncomfortable conversations, to listen, to hear – and participate in conversations that matter.

There is cause to celebrate.

This year the Madison Blues Society is pleased to announce that we will be among the many proud sponsors of the 32 nd Annual Juneteenth Celebration presented by Kujichagulia – Madison Center for Self
Determination. This is a four day event which will be held both virtually and in person Wednesday June 16th through Saturday June 19th . Saturday’s
in-person event will begin with a parade that concludes at Penn Park on Fisher Street at noon. The event will go until 4:00 pm. This year’s theme is “Black Resilience…Rising From the Ashes.” “Juneteenth is a wonderful opportunity to experience the rich history of Black Americans through various forms of entertainment, lectures, visual presentation, food, and other activities.” – excerpt from Kujichagulia MCSD Facebook announcement. MBS will participate in the Saturday event with an information and membership table. We look forward to re-connecting with old friends and making new ones. For more information about Juneteenth see:

Join us at JUNETEENTH Celebration in the Park

We are so excited to partner with Kujichagulia Madison Center on this community event. Join Madison Blues Society this Saturday 6/19/21 at the JUNETEENTH Celebration in the Park at Penn Park (2101 Fisher St, Madison.) Stop by our booth and say hello and ask about memberships!

Other events include a parade, Spoken Word/Open Mic, and more! Click here for a full schedule.

Lost But Found Again: A look behind the music

MBS Board member Eric Heiligenstein, AKA Too Sick Charlie

Lost But Found Again: A look behind the music
By Eric Heiligenstein, MD
Madison Blues Society Board Member
(AKA Too Sick Charlie and His One Man Band;

By the end of the 1950’s, blues music was at a crossroads. The blues was dying, as it so often does, in mainstream culture. It was disparaged as low-class, old fashioned, and unenlightened. Many blues musicians chose to readjust and redefine themselves to cope with changing tastes.

Yet few foresaw the revolution that was to come. In the early1960’s social and political upheaval enveloped the United States. As a result, many of the sixties counter culture generation began to embrace the blues as an honest, earthy people’s music. And the events that followed have been defined as critical to the rebirth and rediscovery of the blues.

Folk, jazz, and rock brought new listeners to the blues in the 1960’s. White audiences were often introduced to the blues by white performers. The blues started to take hold among college students, folkies, festival crowds, and rock and rollers. The British blues rock invasion of the mid to late 1960’s featured bands that learned the music of their blues idols and in turn brought those songs back home to American audiences.

The Rolling Stones are named after a Muddy Waters song and they recorded his “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” (Decca Records, 1964) on their debut album. Waters stated “That’s how people in the States really got to know who Muddy Waters was.” One of the first things the Beatles said when they arrived in the States was that they wanted to go see Muddy Waters and
Bo Diddley. One reporter replied, “Where’s that?”

The 1960’s saw blues played, studied and emerge as a cause itself. It became established as an art form with a discrete identity rather than a sub-genre of folk, jazz, or rock.

Probably the most critical part of the evolution was famed songwriter/musician Wille Dixon’s determination to establish the blues as a legitimate and commercially viable music. In 1962, he collaborated with German music producer Horst Lippman to form the American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe (1962-1966). He assembled all-star lineups many whom had never previously performed outside the United States. The tours attracted substantial media coverage, including TV shows which allowed performances to be filmed and archived. European audiences embraced these performers with a passion. In retrospect, Willie Dixon commented “I wouldn’t have gone over there in the first place had I been doing alright here.”

The performance link ( )related to this article is of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) performing “Don’t Start Me Talking/Coming Home to You Baby”. The first song was his most successful, climbing to number three on the R&B charts.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s visit to London after the 1963 festival led to this clip. There are few archival films of Sonny Boy performing outside of his 1963 tour. During that time he also recorded ‘Sonny Boy and the Yardbirds’, (Star Club Records,1965) and ‘The Animals with Sonny Boy Williamson’, (multiple labels, 1963).

Sonny Boy had toured Europe to wild acclaim. He is widely considered one of the best of all time. His lyrics were full of witty and sly humor, playing some of the loudest, most passionate notes one minute, then deep soulful notes the next. His music was often about himself, telling his stories and experiences through his intimate music style.

Sonny Boy planned on becoming a British citizen but returned to the States in 1965 and subsequently died that year.

Scholarship Guitar Lessons

MBS raised funds for this scholarship at our Bowling & Brews event.
MBS volunteers contacted Madison High School Music Departments for potential scholarship recipients. They eventually picked Anthony from East High, based on recommendations from the music director. The music director identified him as a student that was quite dedicated and could really benefit from additional guitar lessons.

Bill Roberts and Scholarship Student Anthony

Bill Roberts agreed to provide 14 half hour private lessons for Anthony (paid for by the profits from the bowling event.)

Anthony’s mother was very grateful for this opportunity for her son. Turns out they live so close that Anthony can probably walk over there.

Thank you to all the Bowling and Brews participants and especially to Bill Roberts for making this happen.

“The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”~ Willie Dixon (1915–1992)

Join us at FLIX Brewhouse!

Free appetizers and beverages at FLIX Brewhouse for MBS members!

Flix Brewhouse Madison in East Towne Mall has graciously invited a limited number of Madison Blues Society members to attend a special showing of The Blues Brothers on Tuesday, September 25th, 2018.

The event will feature complimentary appetizers, beverages, and free admission to The Blues Brothers movie at 7:00 PM. The event will start at 5:30 PM. Members can bring one guest.

Space is limited. The first 14 MBS MEMBERS who RSVP to can join us!

Come hang out with other Blues enthusiasts and join the fun! Please RSVP by this Thursday, September 20, 2018 at 5:00 PM.

We’ve been awarded a Dane Arts Grant!

We’re proud to announce that we’ve been awarded a Dane Arts grant for our 16th Annual Blues Picnic. Thank you!

This project is supported by Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, the Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.

Please consider joining us for this community-wide free event on June 16th at Warner Park!

Membership Questions? Ask Dave.

As Membership Coordinator for the Madison Blues Society, my job is to receive and process new member applications and membership renewals. Member information is kept in a database which I maintain. I also manage the membership email list and periodically send out information such as meeting minutes from the Board of Directors and special event announcements. Interested in joining us? You can become a new member or renew online at www. Feel free to contact me via my email ( or by phone (608-234-0358) if you have any questions about membership records or processes.

Peace and blues, Dave.

How the Music Committee Selected Our 2018 Line-Up

If you were excited about the terrific line-up for last year’s Madison
Blues Picnic, you’ll be happy to know that the members of the
MBS Music Committee have choosen the 2018 lineup set for Sat.,
June 16 at Warner Park in Madison.

Our committee— Susie Laudner (Chair),Dave Speers, Vivian Schmelzer, Shari Davis,
Steve Lendborg—began reviewing bands once the submission
deadline passed on Nov. 27.

So how do we begin to whittle down the list? Well, because we
don’t have a travel budget we start by eliminating from consideration
those who wouldn’t already be in the Upper Midwest.

Next, it’s important we get the right mix of bands. If we choose
all local bands, we’re probably giving our audience acts they have
already seen and heard. But if we don’t choose any local bands, we
felt we weren’t being true to our local music community. We plan to
do what we did last year: Select a combination of local and regional
bands, plus a great headliner.

We spend time together listening to the bands that fit in each of those
categories. We’re also on the lookout for bands who will offer a variety of blues styles. We discuss, debate, research, and eventually come to a consensus.

Once we came to a consensus, we presented our recommendations to the
2018 MBS Board of Directors and it was approved! The five selected bands have been notified and once the contracts are signed, we’ll make the public announcement. It’ll be very soon!

Next up, we’ll be reaching out for volunteers to help run this
free community event, so mark your calendar for a day of great blues
music and fellowship with other blues music lovers—Sat. June 16!