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Sister Rosetta Tharpe - "Up Above My Head" - TV Gospel Time

by Matt Delmont

At its peak, TV Gospel Time was broadcast nationally to over forty television markets. Developed by Chicago producer executive Howard Schwartz, TV Gospel Time filmed in different cities, including New York, Memphis, Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Rotating production sites enabled the show to broadcast well-known performers alongside regional acts and to feature local gospel choirs such as the Cornerstone Baptist Choir in Baltimore, the Pentecostal Temple Choir in Memphis, and Thompson Community Singers in Chicago. This unusual multi-locale production format made it clear to viewers that while TV Gospel Time reached a national television audience, it remained rooted in specific local music communities. The resulting episodes offered a mixture of national stars with nonprofessional singers and foregrounded a musical genre not commonly featured in histories of music television. In addition to highlighting an understudied television program, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s performance of “Up Above My Head” on TV Gospel Time calls attention to the vitality of televised musical performances and the camera and staging techniques producers used to convey this energy to television audiences. For instance, numerous extant clips of Tharpe’s televised performances record her tendency to look into the balconies of the theaters and studios where she performed, surely taking in the lights and stage rigging above her or registering the spatial confines of a broadcast studio. Yet in the specific gospel contexts, she also gazes upward as if her voice is pitched for the heavens; in this particular song, the gesture references and further reinforces the key lyrical theme. Television directors were evidently familiar with Tharpe’s performance style too, positioning cameras above the stage, perhaps on risers, in the balcony, or as with “Up Above My Head,” on an elevated dolly. When Tharpe throws back her head with a smile and belts the song’s chorus this production detail has the impressive effect of aligning the viewer’s perspective with that of the Almighty.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe - "Up Above My Head" - TV Gospel Time - early 1960s

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TV Gospel Time premiered in 1962 and featured many of the biggest names in gospel music during its four year run. At its peak, thirty-minute show broadcast nationally to over forty television markets. Developed by Chicago producer executive Howard Schwartz, the show received mixed reviews in the black press. Sepia magazine argued that the “reaction of most college-bred Negroes in New York and Washington was one of dismay that a company should select gospel music as a vehicle to show Negroes.” In contrast, the Chicago Defender praised the show both for its range of talented musical performers and because the show’s primary sponsors used African-American models and spokespeople. TV Gospel Time’s debut, the Defender stated, “stands unique in the history of American television. It marked the first time that a video program was shown on a nation-wide basis featuring an all-Negro cast, and it was the first time that a series used Negro talent in commercials.” The Defender’s reviewer also noted that TV Gospel Time filmed in different cities, including New York, Memphis, Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Rotating production sites enabled the show to broadcast well-known performers alongside regional acts and to feature local gospel choirs such as the Cornerstone Baptist Choir in Baltimore, the Pentecostal Temple Choir in Memphis, and Thompson Community Singers in Chicago. This unusual multi-locale production format made it clear to viewers that while TV Gospel Time reached a national television audience; it remained rooted in specific local music communities. The resulting episodes offered a mixture of national stars with nonprofessional singers and foregrounded a musical genre not commonly featured in histories of music television. In addition to highlighting an understudied television program, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s performance of “Up Above My Head” on TV Gospel Time calls attention to the vitality of televised musical performances and the camera and staging techniques producers used to convey this energy to television audiences.

from TV Gospel Times (1960s)
Creator: Howard Schwartz
Posted by Matt Delmont
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