Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The “Godmother” of Rock’n’Roll
by Karen Perry-Weinstat
You’ve heard of Elvis Presley. And we’re going to guess you’ve also heard of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. So why is it you’re not familiar with the person credited for inspiring these legendary performers?
She’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gifted guitarist and the undisputed godmother of rock’n’roll. Her list of musical disciples reads like a who’s-who of legendary ‘50s and ‘60s figures. Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended urban blues with traditional folk music and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll. All this in the 1930s and ’40s — way before anyone had even coined a term for this kind of music.
She was born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to parents who were both performers. Her mother was a singer, preacher and mandolin player for the Church of God In Christ, who encouraged her daughter’s participation in music. Young Rosetta quickly became a musical prodigy. After a move to Chicago, Tharpe became prominent in that city’s gospel music scene. In 1934 at 19 years old, she married a minister named Thomas Thorpe, but they divorced shortly thereafter. Rosetta kept his last name, slightly altering it to “Tharpe.”
Upon signing with Decca Records in 1938, Tharpe issued singles that were instant smashes. Tharpe dared to play guitar aggressively at a time when female guitarists of any discipline were rare. This eventually lead to her falling out of favor in the gospel world, as she crossed over into more mainstream music.
In the spring of 1964, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan. A concert, in the rain, was recorded at an old railway station in Manchester, England. The band performed on one platform while the audience was seated on the opposite platform. View this legendary performance here, and keep your ears open for some amazing guitar solos. Tharpe enjoyed several late-career highlights, including a 1967 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Her health quickly deteriorated in the early 1970s. Tharpe passed away in Philadelphia in 1973 as a result of complications from multiple strokes. Learn more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe in a biography by Gayle Wald.