Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The Curious Career Of The Legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Grainy black-and-white footage shows a middle-aged black woman of strong stature standing on stage before an audience of predominantly white men. She’s donning a modified church dress, floral and floor-length, with her shoes barely visible. Cradling a Gibson electric guitar, she fervently glares at the crowd. Beads of sweat trickle from her perfectly coifed hairline down to her chin. When she opens her mouth, her voice is full and commanding. And then, as she plucks away at her strings, the music is overwhelming — not only because of the elevated guitar skill (especially with distortion techniques), but because the sound and the visual don’t quite match.
A decade ago, it would take a deep dive into library archives to find footage of the cross-genre electric guitar icon known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. These days it’s all readily accessible online (some videos have garnered millions of views) — a testament to her still-growing popularity, a phenomenon in and of itself. Often called the "Godmother of Rock and Roll," Sister Rosetta Tharpe has a unique history within both gospel and rock music. Her influence echoes on to this day. Ironically, though, Tharpe was only inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just last month. It’s a delayed reaction to a consistently impactful woman of music history, a theme that’s followed Sister Rosetta Tharpe even posthumously.
Born in Arkansas in 1915 to musically-inclined parents, Tharpe entered the church performance circuit early, and by her early twenties, she was bound for stardom thanks to a record deal with British label Decca Records. The songs "That’s All," "Rock Me," "The Lonesome Road," and "My Man and I" arguably became the framework for Tharpe's entire career.
"All of it is there. You can hear the energy. You can hear the passion," says The Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who inducted Tharpe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "You can hear the sparks of new things as they knock against ancient things. And you can hear the language of what would become Rock and Roll emerging. 'Rock Me’ is Sister Rosetta's version of a Thomas Dorsey song, and 'That's All’ is her version of a Washington Phillips song. She was able to transform them and light the way."
Of her debut collection of songs, both "That’s All" and "Rock Me" have been cited as the most influential amongst artists, due largely to her ability to take a piece of music, own it, and revolutionize it.
"Johnny Cash loved her. Chuck Berry and Elvis listened to 'That's All,’ and took it as an inspiration and a challenge," Thompson continues. "And then there are all the other people who have named her as an influence or shown her influence in their music: Aretha Franklin, of course, Isaac Hayes, Tina Turner, and names you wouldn't expect, like Karen Carpenter and Meat Loaf."
For the latter part of the 1940s, Tharpe reinvented the wheel, and a bevy of big names (mostly white males) would adopt her techniques and serve them to the mainstream.
"All of those white country singers grew up on Rosetta," says author and gospel record producer Anthony Heilbut. "They grew up loving black gospel. She was a big star."
The issue with Tharpe reaching the mainstream came from her inability to be classified.
"She didn’t fit into anyone’s neat category," says Gayle Wald, author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and professor at The George Washington University's Columbian College of Arts & Sciences. "Even within gospel music, she was a bit of an outlier because she was an instrumentalist. Even within the history of gospel, people don’t quite know what to do with her because of her flamboyance. Because of her guitar playing."
Then, of course, are the obvious obstacles: gender and race.
"To me it’s nothing more than a combination of patriarchy and Jim Crow," explains Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop and professor at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. "In addition to being a woman and being black, she was also a person who dared combine secular and spiritual music, so even in what would have been her home base, the church, she was an outsider. Even in a place like a nightclub, she was an outsider."
"That’s what pioneers do: they walk in the seams between the different tectonic plates of culture. And that’s what Sister Rosetta Tharpe did." –Dan Charnas
Openly bisexual, Tharpe theoretically led the sexually fluid lifestyle that would later infiltrate rock music during the era of David Bowie, Mick Jagger and others. Again, it came down to her aesthetic as the barrier, despite selling out stadiums before The Beatles or Rolling Stones ever did, often with her friend/peer Marie Knight. In 1950, Tharpe staged a concert-slash-wedding in Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, where she married her second husband on the fly. Rumors still circulate as to whether the husband or the concert concept came first.
However, as the 1950’s rolled in, Tharpe’s star began fading. Mahalia Jackson had taken over the gospel world, and rock’s image of its “rockstar" was cemented. Still, she continued to break down walls, collaborating with Red Foley in 1952 for “Have A Little Talk With Jesus," a unique pairing of a black woman and white male. While the American audience had largely moved on from her, Tharpe jumped across the pond.
"The young men who became part of the British Invasion knew about her work," Wald says. "So she had a second phase in her career in the late '50s when she was brought to the U.K. through Chris Barber for a national tour."
Along with other legends like Muddy Waters, she survived through European tours throughout the '60s. While her voice had seemingly aged, Europe loved her catalog from her 1940s heyday even when her vocals dropped three keys. America was a different story.
"In the late '60s when I brought her to Savoy Records, which was then the top gospel label, I had to beg the guys to give her a $1,000 advance," recalls Heilbut. He began staging Tharpe’s American comeback, combining her classic material with some new music. But by 1970, she suffered her first stroke and later lost one of her legs due to diabetes. "Her speaking was damaged, but not her singing," continues Heilbut.
On Oct, 9, 1973—the very day Tharpe was scheduled to record her new album with Heilbut—she died from a fatal stroke by her bedside. The tracklist laid beside her.
“She was a big, complicated character. Her emotional range was from A to triple Z; she could go from bawdy to sentimental in a second. She surprised to the end." –Anthony Heilbut
While it took the afterlife to truly appreciate Sister Rosetta Tharpe, her blueprint is one that continues to shape artists as her music lives on. Ahead of her time, there’s a lot we have to thank Tharpe for across genres.
"It’s kind of melancholy that it comes to her 45 years late," says Heilbut. "For the first time the other day, I heard someone say, 'Oh whenever we talk about women in Rock and Roll, we always talk about Rosetta Tharpe,'" adds Wald. "And I thought, 'Wow. That’s great! Something’s finally changed.'"