Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Godmother of Rock and Roll

Three cheers, and even four today for Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Rosetta Nubin, 1915-1973), For those who don’t know her, discovering Tharpe will come as something of a revelation. For some reason she has not gotten the same amount of credit as many of the straight-up blues artists as an influence on those who came after. I imagine she has generally not been counted because she was a) female, and b) primarily a gospel artist, although she overlapped considerably with secular show business, and the line she walked between both forms blazed a trail especially for artists like Little Richard (who actually sang on stage with her as a child), Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. Gifted both as a singer and a guitarist, Tharpe also influenced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Tina Turner. Her records seem to be at the hub of gospel, country (acoustic) blues, electric blues, jump blues, boogie woogie, etc, and to point the way to soul, rock and roll, and even C & W.

Rosetta was performing in church from age 4 with the instruction and encouragement of her mother, a singer, mandolin player, and Pentecostal preacher. Described as a “singing, guitar playing miracle” she traveled the country, performing and testifying at services and revivals, in churches, tents, and meeting halls. In 1934 she married a minister named Thomas Thorpe. She continued to use the tweaked version of his surname after they broke up a few years later.

1938 was a crucial year for Tharpe. In October she performed with Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club and recorded four sides for Decca Records, including the influential tune “Rock Me”. In December she performed in John Hammond’s legendary “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (1944) was another hit. In the ’50s her popularity took a hit when large constituencies grew separately for the two styles of music Tharpe encompassed. Mahalia Jackson became the top gospel star. And younger audiences were embracing the more aggressively rhythmic forms of rock and roll and soul. With the blues revival of the 1960’s the wheel turned again. In 1964 she traveled across Europe with the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside performers like Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. This tour probed influential on the British Blues Boom.

A stroke in 1970 ended her career. Another one three years later ended her life. In 2011 British filmmaker Mick Czaky released a one hour television documentary about her entitled Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll.