Our future is lost if we fail to recognize the past. I hope that generations today and the future will come to know Sister Rosetta Tharpe of her greatness and influence on rock and roll. I love all types of music, past and present, and when I came across the music and story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I was dumbfounded. Please take a listen to her music. This woman was the inventor of Rock and Roll; even Elvis insisted on that. A gospel singer who could play the guitar is the true mother of Rock and Roll. It brings me joy to share her story with those who do not know her. However, it also proves there is a problem with our history books.
Who is Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
Sister Rosetta was the first to cross over successfully into mainstream popular music. She introduced the spiritual passion of gospel into the secular world of rock’ n’ roll, inspiring greats like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. Tharpe was an inventive, innovative and pioneering songstress and an influential guitarist credited with being the first to experiment with heavy distortion on an electric guitar. Her guitar-playing technique profoundly influenced the development of British blues (Muddy Waters, s Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards).
Her life and church
The child of a destitute cotton picker, Sister Rosetta, was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915. At age six, her evangelist mother Katie Bell took her to Chicago, where they joined the Church of God in Christ on the city’s south side.
Rosetta later married a Church of God preacher named Thomas Tharpe after she became a renowned gospel musician in the church community. After a few years, she moved to New York City to pursue her music career without her husband. Her husband said she used her to bring in a larger congregation. They later divorced, but she kept the surname as her stage moniker.
Her connection with secular music
In New York City, she started singing secular songs. Her willingness to play “God’s music” in the devil’s den of nightclubs and music halls caused an uproar. Many but not everyone, loved her sound. Tharpe was snubbed by religious circles who thought her music was evil and that playing the guitar was a sin. Tharpe pushed spiritual music into the mainstream and helped start the rise of the pop gospel. She performed at venues such as the Cotton Club and Cafe Society, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway recognized her. Tharpe was later asked to play on stage with both of the artists. She toured across the country. It was frowned upon for white and black musicians to perform together. However, Tharpe didn’t let that stop her, so she performed with the all-white singing group, The Jordanaires group.
In 1938, Sister Rosetta signed a contract with Decca Records and recorded the first gospel song 1938 called “Rock Me.” Her music became the first gospel music ever to top Billboard’s “race” charts which later became known as R&B. She later saw talent in a 14-year-old boy named Little Richard Penniman, so she put him on stage. He decided that night to become a performer.
Breaking barriers in music
She saw Marie Knight perform at a Mahalia Jackson concert in New York in 1946. Tharpe recognized a unique talent in Knight. Tharpe suggested they tour together. They did the gospel circuit for several years, recording hits such as “Up Above My Head” and “Precious Memories.” Knight and Tharpe were talented with their instrument-playing skills; they were the only headliners. This tour was revolutionary and controversial because it was unheard of to have two women touring together alone with no men. It helped to boost her pioneer status. She was doing what was unheard of and looked down upon, but the tour was hugely successful. In Gayle Wald’s 2007 biography of Tharpe, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” the author wrote that Tharpe and singer Marie Knight became lovers in an “open secret.” They lived openly in the relationship until it ended in 1951.
Tharpe returned to her gospel roots and performed in packed churches and theaters in the United States and Europe. She became one of America’s most distinctive recording artists on radio and television during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
Tharpe died during a recording session on October 9, 1973.
- During the 1992 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Johnny Cash said she was his favorite singer growing up. Little Richard called her his greatest influence. Chuck Berry said his entire career was just “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” In December 2017, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her contributions.
2. Tharpe is also known as the ‘forgotten mother’ because she wasn’t recognized for her contributions, maybe because she was black perhaps because she was a black woman, or perhaps because she was a bi-sexual.
3. Almost 15 years later, on July 15, 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Tharpe.
4. Tharpe’s 1944 release “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.
5. Governor Edward G. Rendell has proclaimed January 11, 2008, as “Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day” in the State of Pennsylvania.
6. In 2011, BBC Four aired a one-hour documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, written and directed by U.K. filmmaker Mick Csaky.
7. In 2013, the film was shown in the U.S. as part of the PBS series American Masters.