Did you know that Rock ‘n’ Roll was invented by a queer black woman. She was born a kinky-haired girl of two cotton pickers in Cotton Plant Arkansas, a part of the Jim Crow South. She played electric guitar in ways very few people could have ever imagined by a woman who wasn’t even allowed to play at music venues around the country.
Besides being a guitar pioneer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a singer, songwriter, and popular recording artist in the 1930s and 1940s. She was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to Rhythm-and-Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll audiences. She was referred to as “the original soul sister”. She was a big influence on Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Born Rosetta Nubin, she grew up in the Church of God in Christ where her mother was a preacher. She was exposed to religious worship through musical expression. Tharpe’s musicality was fostered in an encouraging environment by her community. Described as a music prodigy, four-year-old Tharpe began singing and playing guitar in the church. Even in that way, Tharpe is just another representative of an American musician whose career born in a black church.
Starting at six years old, Tharpe was a featured performer in a traveling evangelical troupe that performed across the country. Traveling influenced her a lot, and her music was flavored both by urban contemporary and the sounds of rural, backwoods towns. At 19, she met and married Thomas Tharpe, a preacher. That didn’t last long. By 1948, Tharpe had left her husband, taking his last name with her, which she adopted as a stage name.
In 1938, Tharpe recorded her first pieces of music, with the backing of Lucky Millinder’s Jazz Orchestra. This was the first time a gospel act had recorded for Decca Records, a label whose biggest act was Bing Crosby. Tharpe was still just an icon in the making. She came out with her first hit, Rock Me by Thomas Dorsey. Not only a talented guitarist, Tharpe’s soaring vocals on the track are very impressive.
Performing as both a solo artist and occasionally in collaborations with groups like the all-white group, The Jordanaires and African-American artists such as Cab Calloway, Tharpe brought her show to places like the Harlem’s famed Cotton Club and Apollo Theater, Cafe Society, and Carnegie Hall. Shocking and then captivating audiences, most people at that time had never even seen a black woman play an electric guitar before, much less one who could command the instrument to make such noises. Both controversial and respected, Tharpe brought gospel music to mainstream popularity every night she performed. Blending the sounds of her childhood with Jazz and Blues, and the genre she was helping invent. This ostracized her from the gospel community.
In 1944, she released Strange Things Happening Every Day, a song that became the first Gospel tune to chart on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (now R&B chart). It is considered by some to be the first Rock song ever.
In 1946, Tharpe saw Marie Knight and Mahalia Jackson live in concert in New York City. Captivated by Knight, Tharpe tracked her down and the two began to perform together. Knight sang and played piano, but Tharpe did both, plus played the guitar. The two women became longtime lovers and creative partners. Together they recorded the hit Up Above My Head.
In the late 1940s, on the road with The Dixie Hummingbirds, she broke records across the American South.
Tharpe was a pioneer with her guitar technique. She was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, giving rise to Electric Blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British Blues artists in the 1960s such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
Tharpe continued to tour and make new music throughout the 1950s into the 1960s. In 1964 she performed a now infamous show at an abandoned railroad station that was broadcast nationwide in England. Dressed in a luxurious fur coat and driven by a horse-drawn carriage, Tharpe was Rock music royalty whether people knew it then or not. The show was historic and inspirational. She toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan alongside Muddy Waters, but in the 1960s her popularity began to fade.
The rise of white and male Rock musicians appealed more to mainstream culture, and Tharpe’s devotion to recording religious material, meant that she was pushed to the fringes of the musical movements she helped inspire.
During his induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Johnny Cash shouted her out as his favorite:
“It was at the Home of the Blues record shop where I bought my first recording of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing those great gospel songs. Some of the earlier songs I wrote were influenced by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
Aretha Franklin credited her musicianship as an important influence. She influenced innumerable other people who we recognize as foundational figures in Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Tharpe said in 1960:
”Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”
But for decades after her career ended, Tharpe was largely absent from popular consciousness. She hasn’t been portrayed by big-budget biopics, the way Bessie Smith ,Dorothy Dandridge and Billie Holiday have.
Tharpe asked teenage Richard Wayne Penniman to sing onstage with her in 1945; he said it was “the best thing that had ever happened to me“. Forty one years later, as Little Richard, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 1986; Tharpe wasn’t inducted until 2018.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke in Philadelphia in 1973. She had been living there with her mother in a modest home after her leg was amputated as the result of diabetes-related complications. Her longtime partner Knight was there to do the makeup and hair for her burial. Tharpe is buried in an unmarked Philly grave that has since been annotated.
When Tharpe died her obituary in the New York Times called her “one of the first gospel singers to gain wide recognition outside the Negro churches of the Deep South.” Her guitar playing isn’t mentioned, though the obit notes the criticism she faced for putting “too much motion as well as emotion into her singing”, a style of performing which would set the template for many rock singers.
In 2003, a Tharpe tribute album was released called Shout, Sister, Shout! featuring an all-star lineup of female musicians including: Joan Osborne, Maria Muldaur accompanied by Bonnie Raitt, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Odetta, and Janis Ian and more. It also includes Marie Knight. Knight took her final bow in 2009.