OPINION | REX NELSON: Peetie and Sister Rosetta

I've devoted several recent columns to dying towns in the Arkansas Delta and the talented people those towns produced. The most famous folks to escape the cotton fields of east Arkansas often were musicians. Nowhere is that more evident than Cotton Plant, the town that gave us both Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Peetie Wheatstraw.

Tharpe, considered the first gospel superstar, was born at Cotton Plant in March 1915 to Katie Bell Nubin Atkins and Willis Atkins. Her mother was an evangelist, singer and mandolin player for the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly Black denomination based at Memphis. Tharpe was cited as an influence by musicians ranging from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Little Richard.

"She went by the first names of Rosa, Rosie Etta and Rosabell and used both her father's last name and her mother's maiden name," William McNeil and Terry Buckalew wrote in the book "Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives." "She began performing at age 4, playing guitar and singing 'Jesus Is on the Main Line.' By age 6, she appeared regularly with her mother, performing a mix of gospel and secular music styles that would eventually make her famous.

"She could sing, keep on pitch and hold a melody. Her vocal qualities, however, paled beside her abilities on the guitar--she played individual tones, melodies and riffs instead of just strumming chords. This talent was all the more remarkable because few African American women played guitar at the time. Her guitar style was influenced by her mother's mandolin playing and by pianist Arizona Dranes."

Tharpe began traveling with her mother. In Chicago during the late 1920s, she became immersed in the growing Holiness movement. She moved to New York in the 1930s and married minister Thomas Tharpe in 1934. After their divorce, which was finalized in 1943, she kept his last name as her stage name. Tharpe would later marry promoter Fosh Allen.

Decca Records signed Tharpe to a contract in 1938. She soon added secular-influenced tunes in an attempt to please her growing white audience. She was part of John Hammond's Black music extravaganza at Carnegie Hall in New York in December 1938. Tharpe later went on a concert tour of the Northeast.

Tharpe recorded with Cab Calloway and later with Lucius "Lucky" Millinder's jazz orchestra. Tharpe was one of only two Black gospel acts to record songs for U.S. troops overseas during World War II.

On July 3, 1951, a crowd of 25,000 paid to witness Tharpe's third marriage at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. She married Russell Morrison, her manager. Tharpe signed with Mercury Records in the late 1950s, first toured Europe in 1957 and returned to Europe multiple times in the 1960s.

A stroke in 1970 caused speech difficulties and led to a leg amputation. Still, Tharpe continued performing until her death in Philadelphia in October 1973.

In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Tharpe postage stamp. She was later inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame. In 2017, the Arkansas Legislature designated part of Arkansas 17 from Cotton Plant to Brinkley as the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Memorial Highway.

In 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category. In October 2023, Tharpe was No. 6 on Rolling Stone's list of the 250 greatest guitarists of all time.

Peetie Wheatstraw, meanwhile, was born in December 1902 in Ripley, Tenn., as William Bunch. His family moved to Cotton Plant soon after his birth.

"Cotton Plant was a cultural center in the early 1900s, and Bunch began playing piano and guitar there at a young age," Jamie Metrailer wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "By 1920, all members of the Bunch family were listed as farm laborers. Jim and Mary Bunch had four sons and three daughters. In 1927, William Bunch left Cotton Plant to travel across the South as a musician."

In 1929, Bunch headed north to play in St. Louis. He was using the name Peetie Wheatstraw by that time. It was derived from African American folklore and referred to the evil half of a twin personality. Bunch also referred to himself as the High Sheriff of Hell and the Devil's Son-in-Law.

Bunch began recording in Chicago in 1930. He recorded more than 160 songs for the Vocalion, Decca and Bluebird labels during the 1930s.

Bunch made his home at East St. Louis in southern Illinois. He died on his 39th birthday in 1941 when the car he was riding in struck a freight train. He was less than a block from home. The other two passengers, a packing house worker and steel plant worker, also died. Bunch's body was shipped back to Cotton Plant for burial.

"Bunch was popular on the national blues scene and had a profound influence on many bluesmen playing during the 1930s and 1940s," Metrailer wrote. "Robert Johnson borrowed lyrical ideas from him. Bunch's influence could later be heard in the music of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters.

"On June 4, 2011, the Bunch family, the Sonny Boy Blues Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation dedicated a Delta Music Trail marker in Cotton Plant for Bunch. A grave marker was also dedicated, and Gov. Mike Beebe proclaimed it as Peetie Wheatstraw Day in Arkansas."

Music writer Robert Palmer said Bunch's music was characterized by his "two-fisted barrelhouse piano work and his falsetto cry 'Ooh, well, well' that he tended to insert at the end of almost every verse."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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