Saying Sister Rosetta Tharpe was influential would be a giant understatement as her popularity throughout the mid 1900’s cannot be denied. She was the first recognized recording star of Gospel music and her music featured a mix of sacred lyrics and unique rhythms. By the end of her life, her music would become known as a precursor of Rock and Roll. Her style and cache led to her eventually being dubbed ‘The Original Soul Sister’ and ‘The Godmother of Rock n Roll’. Most importantly, she broke barriers for black women of that era with her popularity and consistently touring with white artists, which was unheard of in the 1900’s. She frequently joined The Jordanaires, an American quartet who provided background vocals for the likes of Patsy Cline, Ringo Starr, and Elvis Presley.
In her younger years, she learned to play piano and mandolin from her Mother, who was a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. After she started accompanying her Mom and playing, she would earn a reputation as being one of the most popular acts in the touring Gospel circuit. Quite an accomplishment for starting out in an era where black female guitarists were very uncommon. She would continue to perform throughout the 1920’s, at events like religious concerts and church conventions throughout the U.S.
Her success in the church and performing in various venues eventually led to her first record deal through Decca Records, becoming the first Gospel singer to receive a recording contract with a major record label. Her first Gospel tracks recorded by Decca, Rock Me, That’s All, My Man and I, and The Lonesome Road, were instant hits.
As she started gaining a broader audience, she received offers to perform at bigger venues and was the first Gospel artist to play at Harlem’s internationally famous Cotton Club. She would intertwine her Gospel songs with nontraditional versions of spirituals with Jazz and Blues overtones. This adaptation would become concerning to members of the Pentecostal community whereas the secular audience was thrilled with the crossover.
By the mid 1940’s, she strongly toyed with going back to her Gospel routes, however per her contract, she was required to perform more widely praised sounds. Some of the Gospel community would become unimpressed with her new direction, especially after she would sometimes sing Gospel songs amid scantily clad showgirls during her routine nightclub performances. Despite this, she continued to play and record throughout the second World War.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded Strange Things Happening Every Day in 1944, and the song enhanced her career even further, establishing her as the extraordinary guitarist she is still known as to this day. Additionally, the song put her unique vocal skills on display and it was the first Gospel recording to hit the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade Top 10 (which would later become Billboard’s R&B chart). Quite a feat for that genre of music at the time, especially as a woman.
Following the war, Rosetta reached superstar status collaborating with Marie Knight, a local Contralto musician. The two would record several recordings that were successful and toured the Gospel circuit for the next several years. The duo would quickly sell out concerts across the country and achieve sales that shattered records set by any other Gospel artist. As Rosetta was recording more Blues-orientated songs throughout the 1950’s, her popularity in America began to fall and eventually ceased working with Marie Knight. Regardless of this, she toured Europe in the 1960’s as part of the Blues & Gospel Caravan alongside Muddy Waters.
As popular as she was, some have speculated that her career didn’t receive the same attention of a male Blues musician did at this time, given her devotion to religious material.
At the turn of the 1970’s, she cut a tour short due to her declining health and unfortunately suffered a stroke. To make matters worse, she had to have a leg amputated due to complications with diabetes. Being the superwoman she was, she continued to work and perform until October 1973 where she suffered a second stroke and passed away. She was 58. Her headstone reads, “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”
Tharpe left an everlasting impression on the industry due to her unique guitar style, Blues and traditional Folk sound. As I mentioned at the start of this article, her music today is viewed as the precursor to Rock and Roll because of her strong ability to play the guitar. Long before artists like Elvis, Little Richard and even Johnny Cash were able to rock the guitar, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe that helped fabricate Rock n’ Roll and attracted the world to it. Several artists of today and yesterday, cite her as one of their influences, if not their main influence.
Chuck Berry was one of them. One has to wonder if Johnny B. Goode would have ever come to fruition without the influence of Rosetta. Bob Dylan said of the legend, “She was a big, good-lookin woman, and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin’, singin’ evangelist.” He would also go on to claim, ““I’m sure there are a lot of young English guys who picked up electric guitars after getting a look at her.” Miranda Lambert opened shows on her recent Highway Vagabond Tour with an iconic clip of Tharpe performing “Up Above My Head.” Finally, when Johnny Cash gave his induction speech at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, he referred to Tharpe as his favorite singer when he was a child. His daughter Rosanne Cash stated in an interview with Larry King that Tharpe was her father’s favorite singer.
Her legacy lives on, and so does her music. Her achievements would be covered in a recent documentary called Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, written and directed by famous UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Several years later, the film was shown in the US as part of the PBS series American Masters. In 2016, a musical play titled Marie And Rosetta, based on the relationship between Tharpe and Marie Knight, opened at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
Plain and simple, she was one of a kind. An innovator, and a gift to the music industry.