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'How Sweet It Was': The Cultural Impact Of Gospel

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer
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Sister Rosetta Tharpe

For some, it's an expression of faith; to others, it's an important element of culture. But whatever its meaning, gospel music helped create the foundation for rock 'n' roll, as well as rhythm and blues. Singers like Sam Cooke, Al Green and Aretha Franklin all began by singing gospel music, and Anthony Heilbut has captured some of gospel's greatest moments in a new DVD and CD collection titled How Sweet It Was: The Sights and Sounds of Gospel's Golden Age.

According to Heilbut, Sam Cooke moved the sacred style of gospel into a more secular arena, with his group The Soul Stirrers.

"Sam Cooke took into soul music, which he practically invented himself, the sound and the harmonies of The Soul Stirrers," Heilbut says.

Cooke wasn't the only singer to spread gospel to a secular audience. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, considered to be the original female rocker, influenced the likes of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

"She was sidewinding long before Pete Townshend was conceived," Heilbut says. "People often thought that Chuck Berry was combining, conflating, country and blues, but in fact we know that Rosetta had come up with the sound almost 20 years earlier."

The influential figures don't stop there. The DVD features a song from Marion Williams about the healing power of God.

"Marion Williams was the greatest influence in people like Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding," Heilbut says. "These were some of the most impressive showmen or performers in America. [Williams'] 'Something Within' may have been the first gospel song. You hear an awful lot of American culture and American history in this one performance."

The collection is filled with American cultural history, featuring 26 songs on the CD and 27 performances on the DVD.

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