Little Richard credits his own discovery to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, when in a 1945 show in Macon Georgia, she invited him up onstage. He called it “the best thing that ever happened to me.” For two decades before rock ‘n roll had even entered the public consciousness, Tharpe was essentially performing its sound on record and in tours across the US and Europe. Her gospel influenced, rhythm and blues sound in the 40s, became the sound of rock and roll in the fifties, crowning her the “Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas on March 20, 1915. Both of her parents were musicians, although very little is known about her father (except that he was a singer.) Tharpe’s mother was active in music with the Church of God in Christ (a charismatic Christian denomination in which music was an integral element) and it was in this Gospel music setting, where Tharpe first began performing, at age 4. From a very young age, she started touring with her mother, singing in evangelical performance groups.
At the age of 19 she moved to NY where she was hired by bandleader Lucky Millinder as a vocalist. In 1938, she was signed to Decca Records where she recorded secular tracks like “This Train” and “Rock Me”, as well as continued her religious singing… with tracks like “Precious Lord” and “Down by the Riverside”
Rock Me” (1938) is a notable track in the history of rock and roll, recorded when the earliest “rock and rollers” were still just young kids. With Millinder’s orchestra, you can hear that swinging, late 30’s sound, but Tharpe’s guitar playing and vocals bring an awe-inspiring edge to the sound. The little growls as she sings “rock me in the cradle of our love” showcases Tharpe as an original against the smooth crooning of the time. And in 1942, a review of the track in Billboard magazine foreshadowed the result of her magnificent influence, saying: “It’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe for the Rock-and-Roll Spiritual Singing.” With this performance, Tharpe was called a rock and roll singer, long before Alan Freed had ever stepped up to a DJ microphone spinning rhythm and blues records for a whole generation of teenage youths, and calling them “rock ‘n roll.”
Another one of these early, Gospel-based tracks, “Down By the Riverside,” was a staple of the nascent rock ‘n roll scene coming out of Memphis in the mid fifties. It was a popular track for many of the big Sun Records artists (like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) to use as a warm up in the studio. For these early, rock ‘n rollers in the midfities, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the common link whose sound and performance style inspired their own performances.
Listening and understanding the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe helps us to understand the incredible influence gospel music had on the development of rock ‘n roll. She was a gospel singer, undoubtedly, but she transcended the traditional gospel setting of Sunday morning deliverance, performing this style music for wider audiences, as entertainment in clubs and other more secular performance settings.
She also broke down many barriers. In the thirties, jazz was the music of the age at venues like the Cotton Club in Harlem, with regular performances by Cab Calloway and the Nicholaus Brothers dancing duo. In 1938, Tharpe joined their performance cast, performing gospel and rhythm and blues songs for predominantly white audiences who would not have previously been exposed to these musical styles.
Also in 1938, and again in 1939, she performed in the famous “Spirituals to Swing” concerts that were presented by John Hammond in Carnegie Hall.
These were the concerts that featured African American performers playing Black-created music in a landmark venue of the Western European, classical music establishment. And they performed to an integrated audience. In many ways we can view Tharpe as the face and the voice of bringing African American musical styles like Gospel and Rhythm and Blues to a much wider audience.
Tharpe’s popularity as a performer and recording artists made her the only gospel-affiliated artist to be enlisted to record V-discs for the military during WW2. In 1944, one of these V-Disk tracks, “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” became the first gospel track to cross over to the Race Records charts (as they were still called in 1944). Soon after, this practice would be dropped in favor of the term “Rhythm and Blues Charts.” The song hit #2 on the the Billboard Race Charts in April of 1945.
This particular track is not only notable because it carries the early sounds of rock ‘n roll, but it was so well loved that it continued to be played for many years after its release. For instance, famed Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips was still playing it on his rock ‘n roll radio show in the mid-fifties, keeping her music alive for a new generation of young musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis ended up singing the song for his audition for Sam Phillips and Sun records in the fifties.
In the late 40’s she recorded a series of dues with Marie Knight (who is rumored to have also been Tharpe’s romantic partner at the time). They toured together and recorded tracks like “Didn’t It Rain” (1947), and “Up Above My Head” (1948).
In 1957, Tharpe married her manager, Russell Morrison, in a public ceremony in front of 25,000 paying guests at the Griffith Baseball Stadium in Washington DC. A concert was included in the ceremony, which was recorded and later turned into an album.
In the late 50’s Tharpe toured abroad, bringing blues and gospel music to Europe, including Britain…these tours would inspire many of the young “British Invasion” artists who would come to the US in the sixties. It was in 1957, where she was famously quoted in London’s Daily Mirror saying: “All this new stuff they call rock & roll, why I’ve been playing that for years now.” And she was right…Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the voice of rock and roll, before rock and roll was even in the larger public consciousness. And certainly before we started calling it that. She also stood out from the crowd for accompanying herself on guitar – and doing it really well. Her voice was undoubtedly a huge element of how she reached her audiences, but her guitar playing remains an integral part of her legacy and how she really earned her reputation as one of the foremothers of rock-n-roll.
Despite her successful career, she died in Philadelphia 1973 with little fanfare or notice. She was buried in a local cemetery, without even a headstone. And for many years, she faded from rock ‘n roll memory. But new efforts to understand the roots of this music have renewed interest in this remarkable artist. And her mark is undeniable; Tharpe was a huge influence on the nascent rock and roll landscape, and she is finally starting to get some of the recognition she so richly deserves. In 2007, She was Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 2018, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her amazing life and career!