Black Americans have influenced every style of music since they were brought here during the slave trade. With the sheer volume of trailblazing musicians in the African American community, I could easily devote Black History Month to posts about their contributions to American culture. Ragtime, blues, jazz, gospel, be-bop, rock-n-roll, reggae, funk, ska, rap, sampling, hip-hop, disco, house, techno…all of these were born in black American communities. Heavy metal came from blues and rock & roll. Punk was influenced by ska. Country music traces back to blues (and the racist black–face minstrel music of Emmett Miller.)
But this post is about one innovative and influential artist in particular: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “the Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
Rosetta Nubin was born to cotton pickers in Arkansas in 1915. Her mother was a member of a black Pentecostal church that encouraged rhythmic musical expression and dancing in praise, and also allowed women to sing and teach in church. At age 6, Rosetta performed with her mother in a traveling evangelical group. In the 1920s, they moved to Chicago and performed religious concerts. Already Rosetta had picked up a name for herself, and many called her a musical prodigy.
In 1938, at the age of 23, Little Rosetta changed her name to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and moved to New York. Here is where she took her version of gospel music into secular spaces, performing in clubs and concert halls around NYC. Her fame kicked off with the recording of her first album, Rock Me. For the next 30 years, she performed to packed venues across the US and Europe and recorded more than a dozen albums.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe had a distinctive and unique style: singing gospel while playing an electric guitar with heavy distortion. She played on many styles of guitar, but her go-tos were Gibsons. “She was playing rock licks more than a decade before the first rock record was released.” She was repeatedly said to be an inspiration by many music icons, such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. A show she did in Manchester, England (while on a European tour with Muddy Waters) is cited as a key inspirational concert for renowned guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
“Little Richard referred to the stomping, shouting, gospel music performer as his favorite singer when he was a child. In 1947, she heard Richard sing before her concert at the Macon City Auditorium and later invited him on stage to sing with her; it was Richard’s first public performance outside of the church. Following the show, she paid him for his performance, which inspired him to become a performer.” – Wiki
For all the music aficionados out there, check out this article that goes into detail on Sister Rosetta’s method and style of playing.
In 2007, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame. And, in 2017, she was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
“Rock Me,” a song from the album of the same name that set her on her way to stardom.
“Strange Things Happening Every Day” has been credited as the first gospel song to cross over to R&B.
“Didn’t It Rain” performed in 1964 in Manchester, England
“Up Above My Head”