The First Badass Female Guitarist: Meet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll
She influenced Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless others, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a legend in her own right.
As a musician, she was simply ahead of her time. Maybe even by several decades. Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe developed her distinctive style of singing and playing at age 6, when she was taken by her evangelist mother to Chicago to join Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. At 23 she left the church and moved to New York. While performing there, she was signed by Decca Records.Tharpe began performing at the age of four, billed as “Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar playing miracle”, accompanying her mother who played mandolin and preached at tent revivals throughout the South. Exposed to both blues and jazz both in the South and after her family moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, she played blues and jazz in private, while performing gospel music in public settings. Her unique style reflected those secular influences: she bent notes the way that jazz artists did and picked guitar like Memphis Minnie.
Rosetta also crossed over to secular music in other ways. After marrying COGIC preacher Thomas Thorpe (from which “Tharpe” is a misspelling) in 1934. The marriage was not a happy one, with Thorpe having been described as “a tyrant”. In 1938 Tharpe left her husband and moved with her mother to New York City.
On October 31, 1938, she recorded for the first time—four sides with Decca Records backed by “Lucky” Millinder’s jazz orchestra. She had signed a seven year contract with Millinder and was managed by Mo Galye. Her records caused an immediate furor: many churchgoers were shocked by the mixture of sacred and secular music, but secular audiences loved them. Appearances in John Hammond’s extravaganza “From Spirituals To Swing” later that year, at the Cotton Club and Café Society and with Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman made her even more popular. Songs like “This Train” and “Rock Me” (her first hit), which combined gospel themes with bouncy up-tempo arrangements, became smash hits among audiences with little previous exposure to gospel music. It has been suggested that Tharpe had little choice in the material she was contracted to record with Millinder. Her nightclub performances led to her initially being ostracised by some in the gospel community. She played on a number of occasions with the white singing group The Jordanaires.
Tharpe continued recording during World War II, one of only two gospel artists able to record V-discs for troops overseas. Her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, recorded in 1944 with Sammy Price, Decca’s house boogie woogie pianist, showcased her virtuosity as a guitarist and her witty lyrics and delivery. It was also the first gospel song to make Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (later known as Race Records, then R&B) Top Ten—something that Sister Rosetta Tharpe accomplished several more times in her career. The record has been credited by some as being the “First rock and roll record”. Tharpe toured throughout the 1940s, backed by various gospel quartets, including The Dixie Hummingbirds.
After the war Decca paired her with Marie Knight, a sanctified shouter with a strong contralto and a more subdued style than Tharpe. Their hit “Up Above My Head” showed both of them to great advantage: Knight provided the response to Tharpe in traditional call and response format, then took the role that would have been assigned to a bass in a male quartet after Tharpe’s solo. It has been reported that it was an “open secret”, in show business circles, that Knight and Tharpe were lovers. They toured the gospel circuit for a number of years, during which Tharpe was so popular that she attracted 25,000 paying customers to her wedding to her manager Russell Morrison (her third marriage), followed by a vocal performance, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951.
Their popularity took a sudden downturn, however, when they recorded several blues songs in the early 1950s. Knight attempted afterwards to cross over to popular music, while Tharpe remained in the church, but rebuffed by many of her former fans. In 1957 Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British trombonist Chris Barber.
In April – May 1964, at the height of a surge of popular interest in the blues, she toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Ranson Knowling and Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Tharpe was introduced on stage and accompanied on piano by Cousin Joe Pleasant. Under the auspices of George Wein, the Caravan was stage-managed by Joe Boyd. A concert, in the rain, was recored by Granada Television at the disused railway station at Wilbraham Road, Manchester in May 1964. The band performed on one platform while the audience were seated on the opposite platform.
Later life and death
Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which she had a leg amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. She died in 1973 after another stroke, on the eve of a scheduled recording session. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in an unmarked grave. A resurgence in interest in her legendary work has led to a biography, several NPR segments, scholarly articles and honors. In 2007 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a marker for her grave and January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania. A gravestone was put in place later that year, and a Pennsylvania historical marker was approved for placement at her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia.