Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Godmother Of Rock And Roll
When people think about rock and roll, they barely think about the men of color who helped to create the genre of popular music. With that being said, you can imagine the struggle it was and continues to be for women of color to get their just dues in terms of their contributions to the genre. Still, it needs to be stated that without the talents of women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, rock and roll would likely be very different. With her talent on the guitar, her powerful voice and her songwriting abilities (most often used to praise the Lord), Rosetta helped to change the sound of mid-20th century music and would come to be known as the first true gospel recording artist. Check out five things you should know about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of rock and roll.”
She Could Take You to Church — and Then to the Club
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the few gospel artists who took their talents and music outside of the church and into nightclubs of all places. And while she may have initially received criticism for her performance venues, she was able to push gospel music, and in turn, the name of the Lord, into the mainstream. She helped pop-gospel come to be, and she went from small clubs to booking huge performance venues once she moved to New York City. Her biggest opportunities included gigs at Carnegie Hall and at the Cotton Club, playing alongside Cab Calloway.
She Defied Critics Who Felt Guitar Was Not Meant for Women
A master of the electric guitar, windmilling it on stage and dominating her performances while singing gospel, there were quite a few people who frowned upon Rosetta’s affinity for the instrument. To be able to play the guitar was connected to the idea of being masculine, and Tharpe was at times told that she could “play like a man.” But the truth is, she could play better than many men. It wasn’t expected that a woman, a Black woman at that, could play with such skill and have success. Rosetta defied the odds.
She Was One of the First Commercially Successful Gospel Artists
After signing with Decca Records at the age of 23 in 1938, Rosetta recorded four songs that were all hits: “Rock Me,” “The Lonesome Road,” That’s All,” and “The Man and I.” Those songs established her as one of the first gospel singers truly capable of selling records.
She Influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard and More
The first songs that she recorded for Decca, which were popular and of the pop-gospel sound, ended up inspiring a lot of groundbreaking rock stars, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Her licks on the electric guitar were something else, and managed to garner the attention of many.
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She Recorded a Blues Album and Received a Great Deal of Criticism
After years of touring in front of both churchgoing folks as well as the clubgoers, in 1953, Rosetta tried to record a secular blues album with constant collaborator Marie Knight. According to Biography, her choice to do so caused her to lose a lot of her most important support — that of the religious community. Her popularity took a dip, but nevertheless, Rosetta continued touring all around the United States (including doing critically lauded performances at the Apollo Theater and at the Newport Jazz Festival) and Europe, putting her focus back on gospel. She even tried to continue touring and recording after losing her leg due to diabetes complications. Right before she was scheduled to hit the studio on October 9, 1973, she had a stroke and passed. Rosetta was only 58 years old.
Check her out doing what she did best: