Subculture Unsung: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

An early pioneer of what would become rock n' roll

Thursday 19th July 2018

An early pioneer of what would become rock n' roll, a singer with a powerful, soulful intensity, a performer who brought American music to the North of England in the early 1960s, and a maverick of the electric guitar who experimented with distortion. You'd be forgiven for instantly thinking of Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry or Kevin Shields respectively, but there is a criminally unsung musician who did all of these things before they did - Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin over a century ago in 1915, in Arkansas. Her parents were Cotton Pickers, and members of the very musically expressive Church Of God In Christ, a movement founded by a Black Baptist minister who encouraged female worshippers to preach in church and let their voices be heard. So it followed that by the age of the four, Rosetta was regarded as something of a wonder, singing and playing the guitar to great effect, earning a reputation for gospel music as she travelled the country with her mother and the church. At 19 she married one of the church's preachers taking his surname of Thorpe eventually adapting it to Tharpe as her stage name despite the marriage being dysfunctional and short lived.

By 1938, at the age of 23, she was living in Chicago. There she recorded four gospel songs for Decca backed by the label's house jazz orchestra, among them the presciently titled 'Rock Me'. The songs were hits for Decca, and a Billboard critic described 'Rock Me' as "rock-and-roll spiritual singing" - cited by many as the origin of the term rock 'n' roll.

Relocating again to New York, Tharpe was blurring the lines between religious music and (admittedly early) popular music. Genre-hopping before pop music genres were even fully conceived, her crossover was controversial, upsetting the establishment by taking church music into the racy underground world of prohibition era jazz and blues clubs such as the famous Cotton Club. At the time, many conservative types even regarded the guitar as an unsuitable instrument for a woman, let alone the newly developed and exotic electric guitar. It's also worth noting that despite Rosetta, a black woman, was headlining the Cotton Club, the club's audience was white only.

It seems that the God loving Rosetta wasn't entirely happy with the situation. Contractual obligations would have her playing guitar and praising the lord on the same billing as provocative dancing girls. The song choices were often dictated by the label as well, with songs such as 'I Want A Tall Skinny Papa' taking her away from gospel orientated subject matter.

In 1944 she recorded another gospel song, which, again, some cite as the first rock 'n' roll song. 'Strange Things Happening Every Day' was recorded with Decca's in-house boogie-woogie band. It scored Rosetta another first – the first gospel song to chart on Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade (known now as the R&B Chart).

Rosetta continued to record gospel songs throughout World War II, and in 1947 teamed up with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight. The pair toured and recorded together successfully until Knight's family were tragically killed in a house fire. Post-war the popularity of gospel took a dip, not least because rock n' roll was on the ascent as America's youth music of choice, eclipsing the blues, and country music and, lot least, gospel that been crucial to its genesis.

Despite these setbacks, Rosetta managed to pull off another bit of rock 'n' roll trailblazing in 1951. Following a suggestion from her promoters to make her wedding to her manager a public event, Rosetta sold 25,000 tickets to the 'The Wedding Ceremony of Sister Rosetta Tharpe', which took place in Griffith Stadium Washington DC. The ceremony was followed by Rosetta Tharpe's live performance and album launch. An early example of the rock 'n' roll stadium concert, six years before Elvis' famous 1957 Seattle stadium show.

In 1957, Tharpe, now in her early forties, toured the UK with Jazz Trombonist Chris Barber amidst the explosion in popularity that blues and jazz were experiencing on the UK's music scene. Then, in 1964 she toured Europe with a group of blues musicians that included the like of Muddy Waters. The tour stopped off for a gig on a disused railway station platform near Manchester for its only UK show, which thankfully was filmed by Granada TV.

While it's a shame there wasn't a camera phone in the Cotton Club in the 1930s to record some of her earlier performances, there's something pretty special about the 1964 footage. With incredible yet endearing confidence, Sister Rosetta Tharpe quips with the audience that her guitar playing is "...pretty good for a woman ain't it?" as she makes it look effortless, unphased by the risk of electric shock in the Manchester rain. Her guitar of choice is a white Les Paul Custom (later renamed the Gibson SG) with three humbucker pickups and a Vibrato bridge. A very modern guitar for the time, and a far cry from the type of instrument you'd associate with a gospel musician. It's a very similar instrument to those wielded by Tony Iommi years later.

The Manchester audience who were seated on the opposite platform also produce a landmark moment in music history, with some experts asserting that it is the first time people were ever filmed clapping to the backbeat of a song. The audience had some pretty interesting individuals among its numbers too. The young Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones are rumoured to have made the bus trip from London to attend the gig, and went on to have very well-documented careers behind guitars.

Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash all went on record when interviewed to state the influence Sister Rosetta Tharpe had on them as young musicians. Little Richard too stated that she was his favourite musician as a boy, and sang on stage with her at age 14 in 1947 at her invitation. Rosetta paid him for the gig accordingly as she would any other artist - the moment that inspired him to become the rock 'n' roll star we know today, who in turn inspired so many others.

Rosetta suffered a stroke in 1970 which was further complicated by diabetes, and died in 1973, with recording sessions booked right up to the time of her death. The very epitome of an unsung hero, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia. In 2008 a gravestone was finally placed at the grave following a concert to raise funds in her honour. In 2017 she was inducted into Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame, 30 years later than her contemporary Muddy Waters, and 17 years later than Eric Clapton, the latter present in the audience that rainy day in Manchester.

Sister Rosetta's influence is traceable through not just one, but many waves of great guitar music. In the words of Bob Dylan, "She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin’, singin’ evangelist”. Contemporary artists to knowingly reference her include Frank Turner, Alabama 3, Shingai Shoniwa and Valerie June, though its likely that any artist riffing on an electric guitar is indebted to Sister Rosetta Tharpe somewhere down the line, 80 years after her first record, and over a hundred years since her birth.

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