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