Black History Month: Day 8 – Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Keeping in line with yesterday’s musical theme, today we’ll be discussing one of the unsung pioneers of rock and roll. Most people associate the birth of rock and roll with artists like Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley. But much of history leaves out the woman known as “The Godmother of Rock and Roll” and “The Original Soul Sister,” Sister Rosetta Thorpe.

ister Rosetta Tharpe at Cafe Society

Sister Rosetta Tharpe at Cafe Society Downtown in New York, 1940. (Credit CreditCharles Peterson/Hulton Archive — Getty Images)

You can tell by the picture above that Sister Rosetta Tharpe had the kind of stage presence that would inspire musicians like Little Richard, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In her day, people would ignorantly comment that she “played guitar like a man,” no doubt due to her confidence and swagger. Tharpe was the first great recording star of gospel music, and her popularity in the 1930s and 1940s was due to her unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was active from 1938 when she first recorded with Decca Records until 1970 when a stroke and an amputated leg from diabetes. During the time in between she was famous for her versions of hits such as “This Train,” “Down By The Riverside,” “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and “That’s All.” Known for combining gospel music with the sounds of secular music, Tharpe’s first recordings were widely popular. in December of 1938, near Christmas time, she performed in John Hammond’s famous Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. The performance was revolutionary for the audience, as they were not used to gospel performed alongside secular music (not to mention the shocking idea of a woman playing guitar music). The notoriety this gave her made her unpopular in gospel circles, but led to her popularity as she toured extensively. She would go on to play at The Apollo Theater, Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club, and New York’s famous Café Society (one of the few places that accepted racially mixed crowds). In 1950 she was showcased on Perry Como’s television show, “The Chesterfield Supper Club,” where she sang “White Christmas” in a horse-drawn wagon.” By 1951, she’d become so popular that 25,000 people paid to watch her wedding to her third husband, Russell Morrison, in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. This, of course was followed by a a gospel performance by Tharpe in her wedding dress and finished with a massive fireworks display.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s blues career, eventually got in the way of her attempts to return to gospel music. Later, in the declining years of her career she toured Europe with bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Otis Spann and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. During her lifetime she was known for her boldness as a female guitarist during a time when that was not acceptable. Contemporaries and critics at the time would remark that she could “play like a man” even though she could and did outplay many men of the time (especially during guitar battles at the Apollo). Some have claimed that Tharpe was bisexual, and that her marriages were facades to pander to conservative audiences. Regardless, she was a huge influence on artists like Little Richard, Tina Turner, and Johnny Cash. Her guitar technique would eventually evolve into the rock and roll style played by the likes of Elvis Presley. Her epitaph reads, “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”

Tune in tomorrow for more Travelbox History Corner. We love to hear your feedback in the comments section.

US postage stamp depicting Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

US postage stamp depicting Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Credit STAMPCOLLECTION/ALAMY)

Sources

Graham, Jonathan. “Forgotten Guitar: Before Hendrix, Elvis and Chuck Berry, There Was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Guitar World, 2016. Web. 8 February 2017. http://www.guitarworld.com/forgotten-guitar-hendrix-elvis-and-chuck-berry-there-was-sister-rosetta-tharpe/25851.

Singara, Laura. “Can I Get an Amen?” New York Times, 2007. Web. 8 February 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/books/review/Sinagra.t.html.

“Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 8 February 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sister_Rosetta_Tharpe.

“Sister Rosetta Tharpe Biography.” Biography.com, n.d. Web. 8 February 2017. http://www.biography.com/people/sister-rosetta-tharpe-17172332#synopsis.

Willaims, Stereo. “The First Badass Female Guitarist: Meet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Daily Beast, 2016. Web. 8 February 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/28/the-first-badass-female-guitarist-meet-sister-rosetta-tharpe-the-godmother-of-rock-n-roll.html.

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