In recent months, a video has gone viral depicting a robust, middle-aged woman in grainy black and white ripping one of the meanest guitar solos you’ve ever seen:
The woman featured is none other than Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” who has one of the more enviable legacies in music. Her musical disciples and descendants read like a whose-who of legendary ‘50s and ‘60s figures, her personal history bears the earmarks of a classic outlaw, and her music is richly powerful and evocative—soul-stirring in the truest sense of the term. What a legacy that is—but that legacy has long been obscured.
For decades, fans and critics tended to gloss over pre-1955 music as compared to the music of the late 20th century, and the fact that she was a gospel star likely places her in a certain niche in the minds of the general public. While names like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis became etched into the culture’s collective consciousness, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was rarely mentioned in the same breath—or even as an obvious forbear—to her rock ‘n’ roll offspring who would carry the genre into the mainstream.
Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, preacher, and mandolin player for the Church of God In Christ (COGIC) who encouraged little Rosetta to play and sing for services. A clear prodigy, it was through her association with COGIC that Rosetta would evolve into one of the most amazing gospel performers of her time. It was a church that believed in musical expression and was progressive in its view of gender roles within the church, encouraging women ministers and musicians. After moving to Chicago, little Rosetta and her mother became fixtures within the city’s gospel music scene.
At 19 years old, she would marry a minister named Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934, but the union would be short-lived. Though they divorced, Rosetta would keep his last name as her stage name—slightly altering “Thorpe” to “Tharpe.”
Upon signing with Decca Records, Tharpe issued singles that are instant smashes. Her versions of Thomas Dorsey tunes like “This Train” made her a household name—in particular, her reworked version of “Hide Me in Thy Bosom” (retitled “This Train”) was a breakthrough for her as a recording artist. Backed by Lucky Millender’s jazz orchestra, the song raised her visibility with secular and white audiences and set the stage for a remarkable run that saw her perform at Carnegie Hall (as part of John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” showcase) and record music with Cab Calloway and the Jordanaires. She also made recordings for U.S. troops stationed overseas; Tharpe was one of only two black gospel artists included on these “V Discs”—along with the Dixie Hummingbirds. But it was her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” that proved a major leap forward for both her career and gospel music; it was the first gospel hit on the Billboard R&B charts, peaking at #2.
She would team up with gospel singer Marie Knight, whom she’d seen perform in Harlem with Mahalia Jackson, and the two would tour together throughout the 1940s as “The Saint (Knight) and the Sinner (Tharpe).” 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. That same year, Tharpe and Knight would make an ill-fated attempt to forge a career in straight-ahead blues.
Tharpe’s forays into the mainstream and secular worlds had been a delicate balancing act up to that point; they’d earned her some scorn but also notoriety. But the early ‘50s blues records hurt her gospel standing and the partnership she’d enjoyed with Knight. In 1951, Knight left to pursue a solo career in secular music while Tharpe tried to return to gospel. But her attempted move into blues totally alienated fans and by the late 1950s, she’d been dropped by Decca as her popularity waned. She continued to perform as a major draw in overseas markets throughout the 1960s, sparked by the decade’s resurgent interest in blues music. She would tour Europe with bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Otis Spann and remained a consistent performer until a stroke slowed her down in 1970. Tharpe subsequently died in Philadelphia in 1973. She was 58.
She lived her life boldly, daring to play guitar aggressively at a time when female guitarists of any discipline were rare. She chose to embrace secular artists and audiences at a time when the black gospel community was loud in its condemnation of crossing over. And her own sexual identity has been the subject of much candor. Her attempts at marriage have been called a facade by some who’ve claimed that Tharpe was bisexual, and only considered marriage for appearances and to pander to gospel’s conservative audience. Her biographer, Gayle Wald, wrote that one fellow musician claimed to have walked in on Tharpe and two other women in bed during her “honeymoon tour” right after her third wedding in 1951.
“The circulation of this and other lore indicated that the gospel world had its own legends of outlaw identities and behaviors: of sissy men and bulldagger women, of philandering evangelists and pilfering prophets, of hypocrites who boozed up backstage before singing in front of the curtain about the virtues of holy living,” wrote Wald. “For homosexuals in her audiences, rumors about Rosetta’s sexuality might have been liberating, an invitation to look for tell-tale signs of affirmation of their own veiled existence.”
Her status as an important figure in music has largely been muted due to both rock’s whitewashing and the tendency to elevate the male rock star mythos while treating the genre’s most significant women like footnotes. To be certain, Sis. Rosetta Tharpe paved the way for countless musical women in general and in rock ‘n’ roll specifically—but make no mistake, she also paved the way for men who wanted to play this style of music, black and white men who decided to incorporate her sure-fingered guitar style and swingin’ grooves into the template of what would become a world-changing genre.
Later performers like Little Richard, Tina Turner, and Johnny Cash cited Tharpe as a major influence; and her intricate electric guitar style set the template for what would be considered “lead guitar” in Chicago blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. In the past few years, there have been documentaries and articles that celebrate Tharpe as an important figure in 20th century music who helped set the stage for many of the sounds that would come to define rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. But it’s just as important to remember how great she was on her own merit as an artist and musical force—not just who she influenced.
The term “pioneer” can sometimes be a pejorative. Contemporary music fans toss it off in a way that suggests a certain artists’ significance only exists as a trailblazer, that they only matter because they “paved the way” for the music you actually care about that came afterward. That shouldn’t happen with Sis. Rosetta Tharpe. One listen to songs like “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” and “Jericho” and it’s obvious that the spirit and fire of gospel music, along with the swing and sincerity of the blues, came crashing into each other and bursting out in this woman’s amazing songs.