Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard paid tribute to a formative influence – both on her and rock and roll as a whole – Saturday night with stirring renditions of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "That's All" and "Strange Things Happening Every Day" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland.
Before Howard took the stage, a video clip introduced the audience to Tharpe, a singer and guitarist who recorded a series of vital singles starting before World War II. Howard then brought her formidable vocal firepower to a version of "That's All," one of Tharpe's thumping, bluesy cuts, with help from the Roots' Questlove on drums and longtime Late Show With David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer on piano.
After "That's All," Howard performed one of Tharpe's uptempo proto-rock singles, "Strange Things Happening Every Day," which was a hit in 1945. In Cleveland, Howard's rendition of the driving track was full of lively boogie woogie piano and cheerful call-and-response vocals.
Earlier in the evening, she also did the honors of inducting Tharpe, who died of a stroke in 1973, into the institution. "It is a huge honor to induct Sister Rosetta Tharpe to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," she told Rolling Stone prior to the event. "She has been such an inspiration. I hope this spotlight helps people discover what so many of us already know. She is one of the greatest artists of all time."
Tharpe, who entered the Rock Hall under its "Early Influence" banner, put out her first recordings in the late 1930s, including "Rock Me" and the enduring gospel hit "This Train." She was first nominated into the Rock Hall this year. Howard was a fitting choice to induct Tharpe since, as producer Blake Mills once told Rolling Stone, "She holds court up there like Otis Redding or Sister Rosetta Tharpe."
"Gripe all you like about deserving acts overlooked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but no artist has been more overdue for recognition than Sister Rosetta Tharpe," a Rolling Stone essay asserted in December. "A queer black woman from Arkansas who shredded on electric guitar, belted praises both to God and secular pleasures, and broke the color line touring with white singers, she was gospel's first superstar, and she most assuredly rocked."
Additional reporting by Andy Greene