The Rock ‘n’ Roll genre was born somewhere between a church and a nightclub in the heart and soul of a woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe.   Imagine a Black woman singing gospel music accompanied by an electric guitar, growling and stomping; that’s what you hear when you listen to the songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

This year’s class of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, although she was a gospel superstar. She could shred on the electric guitar and shout praises to God one minute and secular pleasures in the next breath. She crossed color lines by touring with white artists.

Tharpe is credited with introducing the spirituality of gospel into the secular world of rock ‘n’ roll, inspiring the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard.  Little Richard called her his greatest influence and Chuck Berry said that his entire career was just “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” It is befitting that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is finally getting the recognition she deserves for her contributions to America’s soundtrack.

Gospel Meets Rock ‘N’ Roll

Rosetta Nubin was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six, she moved to Chicago and joined the Church of God in Christ where she developed her distinctive performing style. In her teens she married a preacher named Thomas Tharpe, but divorced him a few years later, keeping the surname as her stage moniker before heading to New York.

At the age of 23, in 1938, she caused an uproar by leaving the church for show business to perform sexually laced songs in New York City, where she impressed the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She soon began playing alongside Ellington and other top musicians.

The idea of a woman playing a guitar was almost non-existent at the time, but Rosetta Tharpe squashed that notion by mastering the art associated with masculinity.  She managed to create her own sound by fusing gospel with rock ‘n’ roll. She recorded Decca Record’s first gospel songs in 1938 including her hit song, “Rock Me.” The song showcased Tharpe’s guitar shredding skills mixed with blues and gospel music that revealed she could transcend faith-based music and push boundaries in her own musical style.

Contributions to American Music Culture

She also recorded “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road” for Decca Records. All of these recordings became instant hits, establishing Tharpe as one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singer.

After years of working up north with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder, Tharpe toured the south with gospel legends the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1945, her single, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” on Decca Records, featured a guitar solo and was the first gospel single to cross over to what was called the “race” (later known as R&B) Billboard charts, paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll. In 1947, Sister Rosetta was the first person to put a 14-year-old Little Richard on stage, and it changed his life and the course of music from that moment on.

She then met singer Marie Knight and the pair recorded “Up Above My Head” and toured as a team. Knight sang and played piano, and Tharpe sang and played both guitar and piano. In 1951, after an affair with Knight, Tharpe married her third husband in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in front of 25,000 fans.

In 1964, during one of her most iconic performances, Tharpe played a gig in an abandoned railroad station that was broadcast nationwide. It was raining, but Tharpe got out of a horse drawn carriage, picked up her electric guitar, plugged in, and played “Didn’t it Rain” and sang with such conviction and praise

People often commented that she “played like a man,” to which Tharpe often replied: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”

Tharpe’s career didn’t get the same hype as her male counterparts did in the late 60s and 70s, and that could have been in part due to her religious material. In 1969, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for the album Precious Memories. Her last known recording was in 1970 for Danish TV singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” She passed away in 1973 in Philadelphia.

Influencing the Major Musical Artists

While Tharpe’s name has been swept under the rug despite her influence, she has received a couple of honors posthumously. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998 with a commemorative stamp. Her version of “Down by the Riverside” in 1944 was entered into the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.

Through her distinctive voice and gospel blues crossover style, Tharpe’s influence can be heard in artists of the past and present.  A pioneer worthy of recognition.