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Celisse Henderson Honors Sister Rosetta Tharpe on SNL

December 27, 2019
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer
Design by
She Shreds

During her performance with Lizzo last weekend on Saturday Night Live, Celisse Henderson paid tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe—and we are so here for it.

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Celisse Henderson has been on our radar for years now, which is why we are so psyched to see her getting the attention she deserves following her guitar performance with none other than Lizzo on Saturday Night Live last weekend.

During the performance, Henderson paid homage to the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe during Lizzo’s chart-topping single, “Truth Hurts.” She opened the song alongside Lizzo, shredding an alternative opening to the song and adding incredible embellishments to the already infectious piano line. Henderson played a cream-colored Gibson SG custom electric guitar similar to one Tharpe played, a Gucci guitar strap with “SISTER” bedazzled down the front, and a fabulous coat reminiscent of one Tharpe wore in a classic photo. Henderson’s skilled guitar work added a rock ‘n’ roll element to “Truth Hurts”—a genre-bending addition that’s increasing in popularity and one that Tharpe pioneered during the late 1930s through the 1950s.

Among her many contributions to music, Tharpe (acknowledged as “the mother of rock ‘n’ roll”) pushed the boundaries of guitar in both rock ‘n’ roll and other genres. She was one of the very first recording guitarists to incorporate heavy distortion on her tracks, and she combined gospel, blues, and early R&B; religious and secular music; and notably, black and white audiences during the days of segregation. She influenced musicians such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“All of these ‘heroes’ we see are male, when, in fact, the amount of people who have no idea who Sister Rosetta Tharpe is, and [she] is literally the reason we have rock ‘n’ roll music… It came from this fabulous black woman! It really frustrates me to no end—and this is why She Shreds is so amazing—that when guitarists are talked about, talk about how few women’s names are on that list, right? But then when we go to women of color, it’s almost non existent, when rock ‘n’ roll music personified is a black woman. I feel this charge for being some part of changing this idea of what a guitarist looks like, what rock ‘n’ roll looks like, and what that really means. Just think how much more interesting and vibrant our musical landscape would be if we had more and more women, and more and more people of all backgrounds, who were willing to engage in the spaces where we’re traditionally told we’re not supposed to be.”

Interview with Celisse Henderson by She Shreds managing editor, Cynthia Schemmer, for Lincoln Center

Henderson’s music is defined by her infectious hooks and her passionate and bluesy vocals. In the past, she has performed with artists ranging from Kesha, Macy Gray, Melissa Etheridge, Mariah Carey, and more recently, she was a touring member of the band Ghosts of the Forest. In early 2016, Henderson was featured in the She Shreds article, “10 Black Emerging Guitarists You Need To Pay Attention To.”

 “As a vocalist, with so many years of experience, it’s really rare that I feel thrown by something, everything feels really controlled,” said Henderson in a 2017 Lincoln Center interview. “Whereas on guitar, it’s so guttural and in the moment.”

Henderson’s tribute to Tharpe is one example of the changing landscape of guitar, and the increasingly popular connection between the instrument and genres like R&B and hip-hop. Whereas Tharpe’s contributions went widely unrecognized during her lifetime, we believe women of color are at the forefront of the popularity of guitar in R&B, hip hop, and beyond. Like Henderson said, the idea of what a guitarist should look like is changing, and so is the idea of what a guitar can do—and She Shreds is here to continue supporting this evolution.

(Oh, and who was the other guitarist in Lizzo’s SNL band?! We’re dying to know!)

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