Brittany Howard: “Sister Rosetta Tharpe created rock and roll as we know it”

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs on stage during Day 2 of Cruilla Festival at Parc del Forum on July 9, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.
(Image credit: Jordi Vidal/Redferns)

Singer-songwriter and electric guitar player Brittany Howard is nominated in the Best Rock Performance category at the 2021 Grammy Awards, and she recently appeared on Spotify’s Rock This with Allison Hagendorf to discuss the nod, as well as the fact that this year’s category features a full lineup of female nominees.

Regarding her thoughts on the female-heavy nominee list, Howard said, “Honestly, I just felt, well, it’s about time. As far as I'm concerned, you know, there's a whole lot of women missing from rock and roll history. I'll put it that way.

“As far as I'm concerned, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was who created rock and roll as we know it. But, you know, the people who wrote music history wrote it how they saw it. I'm not going to say it’s completely accurate. So being here, it's just kind of like a ‘finally’ kind of moment. It feels awesome.”  

Hagendorf then pointed out the significance of Tharpe, stating, “It was her music that inspired Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. They were all inspired by her and her guitar technique. I mean, I think she was one of the first artists to use distortion on electric guitar. It's criminal if people don't understand how important she is to rock and roll history.” 

Added Howard, “Absolutely. And I actually had the honor of inducting her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So what I knew about her before then, I got to know so much more after that. And yeah, her legacy is everything we know today.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Howard also recalled the time her band, Alabama Shakes, had the opportunity to meet and play with Prince.

It was amazing,” she said. “We were already on tour when Prince had called our management and was like, ‘Hey, can you guys stop by Paisley Park? I want y’all to play a show.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, we'll stop the heavens and the earth to do this,’ you know what I mean?

“So, yeah, we pulled up to Paisley Park. There are some rules like no cussing and no meat on the premises and no smoking, all that stuff. I'm like, ‘Okay. With all due respect, you know, we'll do the best we can.’

"And we walk into this giant warehouse, I mean, huge warehouse. And that is where he practiced, I think 3rdeyegirl was who was set up at that time, just like that’s who he was practicing with. There’s like a motorcycle hanging from the ceiling in there, could be the one from Purple Rain, I don't recall. And I walked in and there's just like a Pixar movie playing on a huge projector. And I was like, ‘Whoa, that's crazy.’

We're about to play and there's no sign of Prince so we keep playing and he's not showing up yet. And I was like, ‘Oh no, I don't think he's coming up.’ Out of nowhere, he jumps onstage

“And we go to our dressing room, which is up these kind of industrial stairs. Go up those stairs, there’s our dressing room, and then we come back down, go into the other side of the warehouse, and that is where his venue is, Paisley Park venue. We get on the stage, soundcheck, and then his assistant or manager comes up and he's like, ‘Okay, Prince would like to meet you.’ And I was like, ‘Well, if I'm going, I'm taking all 16 of us.’ So we go into his living quarter studios, and I remember it being very hot. The carpet was like purple and it had this crazy piano in there that I have never seen before. I've never seen anything like it. It's, like, futuristic.

“We take a left in the building. There's like clouds on the ceiling. Go down a hallway and it has all these, like, wooden cutouts of him throughout the years, his platinum records and stuff like that. Go into the studio, there's Prince wearing all beige and there he is, you know, like I've been listening to him my whole life and I'm meeting the guy. So we all sit down and I just start like nervous talking. Just filling the space. 

While Howard admitted she could not remember what they discussed, she said, “I remember he was very cool. He was very kind. He was actually pretty talkative and he was funny. He was a funny guy. We were cutting up and then he was just like, ‘Yeah, I want to play Gimme All Your Love with you guys, I like that song a lot.’ And I was like, ‘Well, come on with us, let's go right ahead.’

But meanwhile I'm saying that trying to act cool but my brain is like, ‘ahhh.’ And so, yeah, he asked what key it was in. F sharp or whatever. And that's it. We walk out the room. Prince, great to meet you. Bop, bop, bop, bop. We're out there.”

Cut to the show later that night, and Howard recalled: 

Gimme All Your Love was towards the end of the set. We're about to play and there's no sign of Prince so we keep playing and he's not showing up yet. And I was like, ‘Oh no, I don't think he's coming up.’ Out of nowhere, he jumps onstage. He’s late. He jumps onstage. He's wearing all green. He picks up this cool little green guitar and just starts shredding. I mean, I promise there's like video footage somewhere out there.

"And it was like the most epic moment of my entire career, my entire life. Prince is over here, we're like double shredding on the guitar and then the song's over and he just jumps off the stage like a – I don't know – like he actually vanished. 

And that's the last time I saw him.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.