To celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I’m highlighting various artists and music industry professionals who have paved the way for women in music today. It’s a challenge to select just a few women to feature among the countless number of pioneers in the industry, but this first feature was a no-brainer. After all, no music history spotlight would be complete without the Godmother of Rock n’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Arkansas to parents Willis Atkins and Katie Bell. Tharpe was born into a musical family of evangelists. She began playing the guitar at the age of four and at six years-old, she joined her mother as part of an evangelist troupe that performed at churches around the South.
After touring with her mother, Tharpe settled in Chicago, and later relocated to New York. She played at the legendary Cotton Club, and collaborated with musicians such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lucky Millinder.
Although she grew up performing religious music, throughout her career, Tharpe combined elements of gospel, blues, R&B, and rock and roll. Her first single, “Rock Me,” was released in 1938 and propelled her to national fame.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the few black, female guitar players to gain national acclaim in the early 20th century, and she was also openly queer. In the 1940s, Tharpe teamed up with her partner and fellow-performer, Marie Knight. The two collaborated on music and toured the US together.
Knight and Tharpe’s relationship didn’t last, however, and after a stint of national tours, Tharpe began touring in Europe in the 1950s. One of her most famous performances is the 1964 concert that she played in Manchester atop a train platform to a crowd of captivated Brits.
For decades, Tharpe received little recognition for her musical trailblazing. However, in recent years, mainstream media has begun to give her the credit that she deserves.
In 2011, director Mick Csaky created the documentary, “The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” This April, Sister Rosetta Tharpe will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the “Influences” category.
Today, Tharpe is widely revered for her influence on modern music, especially rock and roll. It’s impossible to hear the music of early rock artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley without hearing traces of Tharpe’s guitar riffs and explosive vocals.
Bob Dylan has also been among those to sing her praises. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain,” said Dylan. “She was a big, good-lookin woman, and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin’, singin’ evangelist.”
While it’s important to recognize the impact that Sister Rosetta Tharpe has had on her successors, it’s also necessary to take a step back and simply celebrate her artistry.
Throughout her Career, Tharpe donned a variety of guitars, favoring Gibson, as they were at the cutting edge of guitar technology in the 20th century. She is most well-known for her 1960’s white Gibson SG Custom (which you can catch a glimpse of in the video above). Tharpe was also one of the first guitar players to use distortion.
Her guitar playing wasn’t the only remarkable thing about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Not only could she rip out lightning-fast guitar riffs, but she captivated audiences with her emotive vocal delivery. The musical education that Tharpe gained in the church taught her to not just sing or play guitar, but to perform.
When asked in 1957 how she would classify her music, Tharpe responded, “All this new stuff they call rock’n’roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now… Ninety percent of rock’n’roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.”
Rock and roll came to be defined as the musical tradition sparked by artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. However, the music that these artists were making wasn’t new. By-and-large, the success of rock and roll hinged upon white (male) artists performing black gospel, blues, and R&B. Black artists were making the same music, only it wasn’t being marketed as “rock and roll.”
In her 2007 biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Shout, Sister Shout!” Gayle F. Wald writes, “When you see Elvis Presley singing early in his career… imagine he is channeling Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s not an image I think we’re used to thinking about when we think of rock’n’roll history – we don’t think about the black woman behind the young white man.”