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.

Q&A with a Blues Musician – Tall Paul Sabel

“Tall” Paul Sabel
Harmonica Player “Tall” Paul Sabel, originally from DePere, WI, started
his journey in music oddly enough during his first year of Physician
Assistant school at UW Madison. On a Monday night he heard Westside
Andy Linderman playing harmonica into a bullet microphone and a
tube amp with The Blue Monday Band which was led by Clyde
Stubblefield. Paul was mystified by the sound and felt an immediate
calling to learn how to do that. At the time, he had been
re-awakening his creative side and decided to go at learning
the harmonica with the mind of a child—no inhibitions and
no pressure for time—and he learned the basics of harmonica
faster than he had learned anything before. With stops in Chicago
and Green Bay, Paul ended up in Madison and keeps a somewhat
low profile as harmonica Player for the Ryan McGrath Band.
He has been working all along as a physician assistant and is
father of two young children but had managed to make
it to The Knuckledown Saloon and sit in with Reverend Raven
and the Chain-smoking Altar Boys featuring Westside Andy,
The Madtown Mannish Boys, The Cash Box Kings,
and Brandon Santini. He is happy his wife Silvia supports his
love of music and performing live. Always looking to add to his
repertoire and musical style, Paul recently started to study via
Skype with harmonica player Jason Ricci.
You can follow Paul by liking his musician page
Tall Paul Sabel on Facebook. Look for gig updates and hopefully
soon some new posts featuring live performances and
informational videos.

1.  What do you do for fun when you are not playing?
STUFF WITH THE KIDS.  Going to parks, hiking, reading stories.  For
myself I like to hike, bike and work out with kettlebells.
2.  How did the Ryan McGrath band get started?
When Ryan moved back to the area after attending school at Montana
State, he formed a trio with local bass player and drummer.  The bass
player happened to work in Stoughton ER which was one of my
sites when I moved back to the area after my 5 years in Chicago. We
talked one night and he invited me to play a party they were
hired for and Ryan and I clicked right away.  That was around
Oct 20, 2014 which was 5 days before my son Soren was born.  Ryan
happened to get married right after than as well so we both had
big changes in life as we met and started playing music together.
3. Who are your biggest musical influences?
Westside Andy, Glenn Davis, Gary Primich, Jim Liban, Jerry Gonzalez
(jazz trumpeter and conguero who I have found to be my spirit
animal in music, I watch his Detroit jazz fest live performances on
YouTube all the time), Charles Mingus, Big Walter Horton,
Little Walter, James Cotton, Mitch Kashmar, RJ Mischo, Flynn
McGee, Bret and Clyde Stubblefield, James LeFevere, Joe Filisko.
4. Who is/are the most famous person(s) you’ve shared the stage
Jorge Chicoy in Cuba probably.  I played a gig with Sociedad Habana
Blues, a band that Charlie Musselwhite connected me to when
I told him I was going to Cuba and asked for advice on playing
harp with that music. That band opened up for Chicoy’s band and
in between Chicoy asked if I would sit in with his band.  I did and they
broke it down at a point and it was just him and I going back
and forth.  He was playing all these insane jazz licks with effects
and I’ve got a harp and a vocal mic.  I thought to myself, what can
I do that he can’t?  So when my turn to match him came up,
I switched the gears and did my best train imitation on harp
and brought the house down. Afterwards he told me I was
welcome on stage with him anytime. I got to sit in with
Charlie Musselwhite once too and he’s probably more
famous but I just remembered that. Charlie was playing a 3 night
casino gig in Green Bay in February and I offered to show
him around town. 
Long story short, he likes second hand shops and pawn shops and I
brought him to a place where he figured out they had a few switch blade
knives hidden behind the counter in a cigar box and bought one.
He told me you never  know when you might need a good knife. 
Still in his blood from Chicago days.  Anyway, he let me up for
the song Cadillac Women on the last night of his residency at
the casino.  Billy Flynn was there and I think he ended up mailing
the switchblade to Charlie so he wouldn’t lose it at the airport.
5.  Tell us about your first paid gig.
Biker bar next to red letter news in early 2000’s. I made $11.  
6. If you could play another instrument beside harmonica, what would
it be and why?
Drums because my son wants to play them and I wish I could teach
7. If you could collaborate with another musician who
would it be? 
Alabama Mike.  He sang on the album Howlin at Greaseland which
came out around the time my daughter Arya was born in 2018 or so. 
I used to console her and rock her to that album but really love
Alabama Mike’s delivery And would love to meet him someday.
8. What’s the most important skill to have as a musician right now? 
I don’t know.  I guess it’s social media marketing .
9.  Describe Ryan McGrath Band fans in 3 words.
Addicted, loyal, intelligent 
10. If you could change one thing about the music business,
what would it be?
Pay me in Bitcoin or pay us for streaming our music.
11. What is your opinion about cover songs?
I love covers as long as it’s not cover band style and we can improvise. 
People want to hear stuff they know.  I’m not going to try to replicate
note for note covers, but I do cover songs and introduce as such. 
I also want t to sprinkle in original stuff and hopefully people are
open to new stuff.  Music is communication and if people aren’t open
to new stuff, they will be stuck and miss out. 
12. Tell us about one of your music teachers.
DeWayne Keyes is a Madison legend in my mind.  If not for him I
wouldn’t have started.  He gave classes through the UW extended classes
or something like that and I took his course after seeing fliers all over
campus for 4 years.  I took that course after hearing Westside Andy
at Okay’s Corral and knowing I wanted to play harmonica.  DeWayne
is a great teacher and really inspired me.  He had a handout with
harmonica players to check out and I took it to the library and
checked out cds of those artists and figured out who I liked and
didn’t like.
13. What advice would you give to young musicians?
Go for what you truly love.
14.  What are the benefits of listening to music? Playing music?  
LISTENING IS CRUCIAL.  I can get practice reps in from listening alone
while on my bike going to work.  It may be out of necessity but it works. 
It’s like practice reps in sports.  And even if passively listening you
want to have good music around you all the time.  You never know
what soaks in. The chromatic harp line I play in part of Play With
My Mind on Heat and the Hammer I got inspired from a John
Fruschante guitar line from intro to Snow Hey Oh from the
Chilli Peppers. I heard it at home the day before my recording
session when my wife had the song on as part of a kids dance party. 
It triggered an idea and I went and wrote it out. Always be receptive
to the universe guiding you to create music.
15. If music were removed from the world, how would you feel?
Very dead and no emotion.
16. How much time do you spend listening to music each day
or week?  Playing music?
It depends.  I go in streaks where I’m checking out new music or
listening to stuff that stirs the memories and spend hardcore hours
going at it but lately it has been very sad where I’m listening to
sports radio and trying not to think about music because there
isn’t much to look forward to and if I don’t have deadlines,
less likely to carve out time to practice with the family
obligations there.
17. Is there a song that makes you emotional?
Sound of Silence, original but the Disturbed version has really
moved me to tears.
18. What is your least favorite type of music?
Whatever category the song What Does The Fox Say is in as it’s my
son’s favorite song and I feel like I’m hearing that more than
good music so my ears may be getting contaminated with annoying
pop sh*t.
19. Karaoke –  Yeah, or nah? 
Nah, unless I’m drunk in Tokyo which I have been And for some reason
it’s not as annoying there.  Probably because I was drunk.
20. Who should answer these questions next?
Westside Andy

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.

Raffle Tickets Available at the Picnic!

Enjoy the music! But please don’t forget that the Blues Picnic is the annual fundraiser for the Madison Blues Society! We will have raffles tickets available!

Tickets are $5 for one or 5 for $20. (cash only)

Thank you to our raffle donors! Please visit their businesses and thank them for supporting the Madison Blues Society!

To date MBS Blues Picnic Raffle Prizes include:
Barrymore Theatre: Two tickets to Hot Tuna in December
Benvenuto’s Italian Grill:  Two $20 gift cards for the Fitchburg location and 5 $10 gift cards for Fitchburg, Madison, & Oshkosh locations
Blue Moon Bar & Grill: $25 gift certificate
Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream: Ten gift coupons for 1 free single wafer cone, sugar cone, or dish
Crystal Corner Bar: Two $20 gift certificates
Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery: $25 gift certificate
Klinke Cleaners: $25 gift card
Orange Tree Imports: $25 gift certificate
Liliana’s Restaurant: $25 gift card
Charlie’s on Main:  $25 gift card 
Madison Mallards: Four grand stand tickets and 4 hats

The Shoe Box: $50 gift certificate

Drawings will be held at our Picnic on June 16 at Warner Park from noon to 9pm but winners need not be present to win.
Raffle License: R0019142A-70730