Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the epitome of amazing grace—ah, yes, how sweet the sound! This astounding woman, often referred to as the Godmother of rock-and-roll, was profoundly influential in twentieth-century music. Only in the last few years has she received the attention and acknowledgment she deserved, nearly 50 years after her death. And still, many people have no idea who she was.
Her musical background was born in the gospel music of the Black church of the south, and she was a featured performer in a traveling evangelical troupe by the time she was six years old. Born in 1915, she accompanied her mother across the US presenting gospel concerts throughout the 1920s. As her career developed, she began to blend the sounds of rural, small-town America with the urban contemporary sounds of jazz and blues that she was exposed to during her travels.
Her voice was incredibly powerful, and her artistry and skill with the newly electrified guitar was astonishing. Sister Rosetta displayed great showmanship and flamboyance on the instrument in a time when women just didn't play the guitar. When she was compared to male guitarists of her day, often given the back-handed compliment that she could “play like a man,” her response was—“Can't no man play like me. I play better than a man.” She pioneered many guitar techniques and was profoundly influential in the development of electric blues, British blues, rock-and-roll, and rockabilly.
She was the first great recording star to mix spiritual lyrics with a rhythmic accompaniment, and in 1944 with the release of “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” she single-handedly brought gospel music into mainstream popularity when the song became the first gospel to ever make Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade chart. It is often considered to be the very first rock song, EVER!
Her career was somewhat of a roller coaster—packing audiences in stadiums as well as ballrooms for many years. However, with the rise of white male rock musicians and the popularity of secular rock-and-roll, her music was eventually pushed to the fringes of the musical movement she was instrumental in creating. She enjoyed a brief revival of her career again on the wave of a trailblazing European tour in the late '50s and early '60s. Her guitar playing techniques greatly influenced many British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
She did, indeed, inspire much of the iconic music we think of as rock-and-roll and rockabilly. Chuck Berry once said his entire career was “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” Johnny Cash, during his induction speech at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, said she was his favorite singer. Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Little Richard—they ALL acknowledge her influence.
The end of her life was lived quietly in Philadelphia, and she died in 1973. In 2018, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. Her biography, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was written by Gayle Wald. Check Sister Rosetta out on YouTube—especially “Didn't It Rain”. She is definitely the queen of rock!!
- Written by T. Kent