By Caroline Paone
You can’t help wonder why Sister Rosetta Tharpe – a groundbreaking electric guitarist – was buried in an unmarked grave until 2009? Unfortunately, some of the musicians who helped shape rock music simply faded into obscurity with little fanfare.
But luckily people are once again rejoicing for Tharpe: A gospel singer with a rock-and-roll heart. She was popular from the 1930s through the 1960s, and uniquely paired rhythmic accompaniment with spiritual lyrics.
On April 14, 2018, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence – and, indeed, her influence is felt. A newfound appreciation for her genius exists. Whether it’s her image on the cover of a guitar magazine or a postage stamp, it’s clear she had an impact on music history.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Rosetta Nubin) was born March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. One of the first women to play electric guitar, she slung a Gibson SG and embraced distortion long before Jimi Hendrix.
At a time when few women played guitar, Tharpe (and blues legend Memphis Minnie) achieved national fame. For mid-century musicians, life on the road wasn’t simple. It was a time of racial unrest and these musical pioneers faced many challenges.
A woman of color pursuing an unorthodox lifestyle, Sister Rosetta faced prejudice. Yet, she forged ahead. The institutional segregation of the times made traveling from city to city extra daunting. When motels denied Tharpe accommodation, she stayed on the sleeper bus. Her white bandmates (like the Jordanaires) would bring her meals so she wouldn’t have to pick up food at the back of restaurants.
On stage you’d never suspect her challenges. After a blistering solo, she’d say, “Pretty good for a woman, ain’t it?” Tharpe knew what she was facing, but her voice, her guitar, and that spirit in the sky led her.
Tharpe’s early musicality began with her mother (a church singer and mandolin player). She first picked up the guitar at age four, and by six was on the road with her mother and a southern evangelist troupe. In the 1920s, the duo settled in Chicago and continued performing at church revivals. Tharpe became known as a musical prodigy, billed as a “guitar-playing miracle.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, she recorded several gospel albums. At 23, her first single, “Rock Me,” fused gospel and rock-and-roll, and three other gospel songs followed: “My Man and I,” “That’s All” and “Lonesome Road” (all on Decca Records).
Tharpe was soon one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singers. Her unique sound set her apart from her contemporaries. Singing in front of a gospel choir, she made her guitar sing, too, with blues bends and jazz improvisations.
Her accomplishments kept coming. She was one of two gospel artists who recorded V-discs for World War II troops overseas (during the recording ban by the American Federation of Musicians 1942-44). In 1944, she released the classic “Down by the Riverside.” Then her 1945 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first gospel record cross-over hit, which rose to number two on the Billboard “race records” (now called the R&B chart).
Her music became more accessible and her tone beefier. In a floral-print dress, she kickstarted rock-and-roll playing the same guitar hooks and boogie-blues rhythms that Chuck Berry would eventually employ. Later, she would delve deeper into Delta blues and New Orleans jazz styles of music.
As far as her legacy, not much has been taught about her influence on rock/blues music. Historians and critics have long acknowledged the influence that blues musicians have had on British and American rockers. But what they left out was that a woman was alongside blues greats T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.
Still, she was called the “original soul sister” and “Godmother of rock and roll.” Tharpe clearly predated rock music influencing everyone from Little Richard and Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. She was one of the few artists at the time to play electric guitar aggressively as a lead instrument. Even today she stands out as a top performer for her vocal range, intricate fingerpicking and quick slides.
Respected by her fellow musicians, she shared the stage with many legendary performers such as jazz great Cab Calloway at Harlem’s Cotton Club. In fact, her European tour with Muddy Waters in 1963 and 1964 would prove a notable inspiration for legendary British guitarists Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.
Even with the honorable mentions, she was somewhat forgotten after the 1960s. The reason why is unclear; although, in general, female musicians were not covered much in technical publications. However, some feel the gospel community were unhappy with Tharpe’s secular leanings; others cite the times and young listeners seeking different forms of music. Whatever the case, it was a dying shame.
According to playwright George Brant who wrote the musical “Marie and Rosetta” about Tharpe: “Chuck Berry borrowed her guitar stylings, and Little Richard said she was responsible for his career. Elvis Presley counted her as an influence, and even Jimi Hendrix once said he just wanted to play like Rosetta,” Brant told the Daily Beast. “Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have all cited her as influences – which makes it even more frustrating that she fell out of fashion.”
Overseas audiences never forgot her as she was still touring Europe close to the end of her life. The guitarist had several health issues but remained passionate about playing. In 1970, she suffered a stroke; and after complications from diabetes, her leg was amputated. She kept going. In 1973 the night before a scheduled recording session, she had another stroke and sadly passed away.
Tharpe was laid to rest in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia and had a small service at a Baptist church. [One can speculate that the latter part of her career and legacy was also mismanaged.] Since her husband at the time, Russell Morrison, could not provide her with a proper grave stone, her plot went unmarked for decades.
Things changed with the 2007 biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe written by Gayle Wald. It garnered renewed interest in Tharpe and bolstered her legacy.
Finally, in 2009, a beautiful rose-colored monument adorned her grave site. The headstone was partially funded by a benefit concert at the Keswick Theatre including performances from gospel and spiritual music legends. 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.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a revolutionary woman in music. She pushed religious and racial boundaries and crossed musical genres – surely a soul to be reckoned with.
The singer is now appropriately honored in her resting place. And rightfully so the guitar virtuoso holds a prominent spot in music history as well. Indeed, there’s music up above her head and all around.
Lively Performances – Soulful Voice and Bluesy Guitar
Luckily, many of her live performances were documented, such as the legendary 1964 Manchester, England, Chorlton railway station show. It was part of the American Folk-Blues festival tour including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, among others. Tharpe plugged into a Vox amp and wailed on an electric guitar for songs “Didn’t It Rain” and “Trouble in Mind” giving the blues-loving Brits something to cheer about. In a decorative coat and high heels, she made her mark as an iconic, confident woman in music.
Today, songs “Down by the Riverside,” “That’s All,” “Up Above My Head,” and “This Train” are popularly visited on YouTube. “That’s All” is a stand out for its rocking solo and pre-Townsend windmills.
Legendary Guitars of Sister Rosetta Tharpe
1929 Gibson L-5
Gibson SG Standard Electric Guitar
Gibson Les Paul Goldtop Electric Guitar
Gibson Barney Kessel Custom
1932 National Triolian Resonator guitar
Photo: Public Domain