Meet The Grandmother of Rock And Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, A Black Woman

February 3, 2015  |  

Black History Month is here y’all! And I know I’m excited. As much as our history is hidden, twisted or completely disregarded, I always take great pleasure in learning something new and wonderful about our people. And being that this is a Black women’s site, we’ll be featuring Black women who’ve changed the world in one way or another but somehow failed to get the recognition they deserved.

And today, that lady is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

While the mainstream would have you believe that Rock and Roll was created by an Elvis Presley type, the truth of the matter is, the fundamentals of the genre were started by Black people. The genre was propelled by people like Little Richard, (He jokes about not getting his just due, but he’s telling the truth.) and Chuck Berry. But guess who Little Richard and Chuck Berry list as one of their favorite singers and greatest influence: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

So who is this woman?

Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas on March 20, 1915. And like the name of her town suggests, her parents, Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins, were cotton pickers. Though little is known about her father, both of her parents had a musical background. Her mother Katie, was a musician, singer as well as a preacher in the COGIC denomination. COGIC was different from other Christian sects at that time because it encouraged rhythmic music and allowed women to preach in church. Rosetta, following in her parents’ footsteps, started singing and playing the guitar at four and was labeled a musical prodigy. By six,  she and her mother were traveling throughout the south on an evangelical tour.

In the mid 1920’s, Tharpe and her mother relocated to Chicago, Illinois where they continued to perform religious concerts, occasionally performing at conventions throughout  the country.

It wasn’t long before Rosetta had created a name for herself, particularly since there weren’t that many Black, female guitarists during the time. At 19, Rosetta married a COGIC preacher named Thomas Tharpe and he began traveling with her and her mother. The two weren’t married long; and Rosetta would eventually remarry (twice), but she kept the last name and called herself Sister Rosetta Tharpe when she took the stage.

In 1938, at 23, Tharpe moved to New York City where she recorded her first album with Decca Records. She recorded four songs, “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “The Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road.” All of the songs became hits and Tharpe became the country’s first gospel artist to enjoy commercial success.

In December of that same year, she performed in Carnegie Hall. The performance was unique in that she performed her gospel music in front of a secular audience. And then there was the style of music. Her guitar playing, which blended blues and folk songs with a swing sound, had all the makings of the early Rock and Roll sound.

The audience responded favorably and Tharpe continued to gain more fame. She became a regular a Cab Calloway’s famous Cotton Club in Harlem.

Her songs called “Shout Sister Shout” and “I Want A Tall Skinny Papa” featured Tharpe playing the electric guitar for the first time. This specifically, was the sound that would turn up in Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s music.

In 1944, Tharpe recorded “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” The record showcased her clever lyrics, delivery and guitar skills. The song ended up being the first gospel song to make Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (later known as Race Records and finally, R&B). She would go on to do this several more times in her career. But the 1944 record has been credited as the “First rock and roll record.”

The next year, Little Richard was at the same venue as one of her concerts and Tharpe happened to hear him sing. Afterward, she invited him on the stage with her. It was his first public performance outside of church. Little Richard would later say that performance inspired him to pursue music as a career.

In the 1950’s Tharpe and her singing partner Marie Knight recorded several blues songs. The fact that she was doing secular music didn’t sit well with her gospel fans. And though she wanted to remain the in the church, her core audience had turned their backs on her. On the outs with some of her American fans, Tharpe booked a month-long tour in Europe.

In 1970, while still in Europe and on tour with Muddy Waters, she suddenly got sick and was rushed back to the United States. When she arrived, she suffered from a stroke and had to have her leg amputated as a side effect from diabetes complications. Despite the setback, Tharpe continued to perform.

In 1973, the day before she was scheduled to go to the studio to record, she had another stroke and passed away three days later on October 9, 1973. She was 58 years old.

Over 20 years after her death, in 1998, the United States Postal Service honored Tharpe with a commemorative stamp. And in 2007, she was inducted, posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Source: USPS

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  • Bob

    Black people created Rock n Roll? The hell you say….White people appropriated other people’s culture /creation ? That never happens….

  • Happygirl43

    Our race is oozing with such talent and so much history behind it ,so many stories to tell and pass on to the future generations.Ive listen to rock n roll ever since I was eleven years old.In fact I always wanted to be a rocker but I was laughed at for listening to rock music or some will tell me you know your black so it’s like I’m suppose to only listen to rap music… will little did they know Rock n roll was invented by our kind.
    That’s why black history is so important.

    • Bob

      Why did you let the opninmions of others dissuade you? I listened to my Clash, Six Pistols, etc and gave zero fvcks who liked it.

  • Trendsetter

    I have never heard the mainstream media say that whites created Rock. We just do not acknowledge our own accomplishments bc whites enjoy it more than we did. Blacks called Jimi Hendrix all kinds of names when he played rock in Harlem. They hated on him bc whites appreciated him. Juts like a black who gets an education…they call us uncle toms and sell outs bc we achieve success.

    • Happygirl42

      Exactly I can’t believe blacks didn’t care to acknowledge him , he is one of the most greatest

    • Bob

      Riiiiiiight….all Blacks hated Jimi that had a Black following when he worked the jazz and blues circuit…..

  • Trendsetter

    Blacks also invented techno and house music. But the modern day black will look at you crazy if you listen to it. We don’t even keep up with what we create.

    • Happy girl43

      That’s b/c we are too busy talking hip hop all the time like that’s the genre we ever invented from the dawn of time.

    • Bob

      We also invented the documentary A Band Called Death, there were a Black bank who were punk before the Brits but are never given airplay because the record company didn’t know what tho do with them since they didn’t fit the Black music mold.

  • Tricia

    I had never heard of her either until I randomly came across a documentary on tv a few months ago. She was a true talent and a genius. I was immediately struck by her emotionally, authentic delivery.

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  • mike h

    Makes no sense that she is never talked about as a pioneer. Sad.

  • fromanotherplanet

    African Americans have such a rich and layered history, and it’s a damn shame that it is not being taught and celebrated. If a group of black men or women were to release rock music today, black audiences would call them g ay or white and white audiences will shun them because they are not the right “look” for the genre. Ironic considering African Americans started the genre. I think we blacks, from other parts of the world, owe a lot of African American history and more has to be done to celebrate their beautiful and resilient stories.

    With that said, Shingai Shoniwa (black brit-zimbabwean rocker chic who is the lead singer and bassist of the group Noisettes) did to tribute to Sister Rosetta some years back in a song titled “Sister Rosetta.: Y’all need to check it out.

    • J

      Omg I love Shingai, She was one of my first natural inspirations!

    • Trendsetter

      White audiences would not shun them. Look at Hootie and the blow fish. They are actually pleasantly surprised that we would be interested.

    • Maria Kathleen Williams

      I definitely will!! 🙂

    • tracy smith

      Our rich layered history is not being taught because if it was it would let the world know that white folks are not great and superior to us like they have them believing.

  • Trillary Banks

    Definitely a underrated Diva. Never really heard of her until now, don’t hear much about the black women from the early rock n roll days, closest you get is Tina Turner. Great post and her music was dope.

  • Notreally

    Great story! Thanks for the new artist!

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