Rosetta Nubin Tharpe was a gospel superstar in the 30s 40s. Born in 1914 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas off of the Mississippi Little Rosetta’s deeply religious pentecostal family migrated to Chicago, on route bringing with her Delta Blues and her gospel roots. In Chicago she began her career placed on the piano – a 6-year-old singing and playing her guitar for all of her new church congregation to see.
When you think of Rock n’Roll who do you imagine? I’ll bet it’s not a thick, chic, cherub faced Black woman with the voice of the gospel carrying an electric guitar who made rhythm & blues a whole new animal….
She was one of only two gospel artists who recorded V-discs for the troupes during WW2. Her recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” in 1944 with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price was the first gospel song to make Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade Top Ten and is considered by some to be the first rock and roll record.
Tharpe’s biographer, Gayle Wald put it this way, “If this woman was doing this in the 1940’s, then you have to go back and re-write the whole story of rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll guitar playing specifically.” source
Married off to a tyrannical minister Tommy Tharpe at 19, she would eventually leave him and take her mother to NYC. There she started singing at the Cotton Club with Cab Calloway and scantily clad showgirls. Although gospel fans felt betrayed, her musical world opened up and started recording with Decca Records.
She ultimately chose to keep with Gospel songs giving them a popular upbeat spin. People paid to see her wed her third husband in 1951 at a baseball stadium followed by a concert in her wedding dress. By 1957 she had disappeared from popular music. That however, doesn’t change her undeniable influence.
Sister Rosetta died a legend for musicians in 1975. She was and is the influence to the likes of rock artists everywhere. One of my favorite bands the Noisettes have a great song about her. From Chuck Barry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and generations to come they all have been influenced by the amazing Sister Rosetta. Peter Townsend of the Who no doubt got his windmill signature move from Sister Rosetta as shared in this TV appearance from 1962. Just a little shredding with the choir to Up Above My Head.
Not only is she a pioneer but she is one sharp Goddess. Her style foresees some of my favorite glam designs of the 70s. Maxis with fabulous sleeves and simple timeless numbers.
Once you know about Sister Rosetta, it is impossible to forget her. Amen.