Sister Rosetta Thorpe, born March 20, 1915 took gospel and swing into rock and roll.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Ark. Both her parents were active preachers in Pentecostal churches and after she learned both guitar and singing from her mother they were often on tour together.

Her performances developed a following in more secular circles. In 1938 she made her first recording for Decca. After a brief stint with Cab Calloway as singer and guitarist, she joined band leader Lucky Millinder in 1941 to perform at the Savoy Ballroom. An interviewer noted that she was criticized by some Harlem ministers for putting too much motion as well as emotion into her singing. She denied this.

In later years she continued to appear before religious groups and also in nightclubs, including Cafe Society Downtown. In 1959 she was a leading performer in a folk‐song concert at Town Hall, and had also appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and in performances at Alice Tully Hall.

The “godmother of rock n’ roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to cotton pickers. Prompted to do so by her mother, Tharpe began to play the guitar at the age of four and was dubbed a child prodigy. She began to travel with her mother around Arkansas two years later.

By the mid 1920’s Tharpe and her mother had settled in Chicago. It was here where Tharpe began to create her own unique musical style: a blend of Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel music. Her music consistently and openly explored themes of sexuality. 

Seeing a female guitarist and musician at the time was rare, especially one who sang both secular and religious music. Tharpe was persistent, however, landing herself a gig at the Cotton Club Revue in New York City in 1938, before recording her first singles. Tharpe performed with the likes of Duke Ellington, and Muddy Waters, remaining motivated even amidst racist policies at many venues that forced Tharpe to sleep in buses outside.

Rock ‘n’ roll was bred between the church and the nightclubs in the soul of a queer black woman in the 1940s named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was there before Elvis, Little Richard and Johnny Cash swiveled their hips and strummed their guitars. It was Tharpe, the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, who turned this burgeoning musical style into an international sensation.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Tharpe was always surrounded by music growing up. Born Rosetta Nubin in Arkansas to Willis Atkins and Katie Bell, Tharpe came from a family of religious singers, cotton pickers and traditional evangelists. She picked up the guitar at four years old, and at the age of six she accompanied her mother to perform with a travelling evangelist troupe in churches around the South. By the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, where they continued performing spiritual music. As Tharpe grew up, she began fusing Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel music into what would become her signature style.

Tharpe’s lyrics unabashedly flirted with her openness of love and sexuality, an approach that left her gospel audience speechless. “Rock Me,” which showcased Tharpe’s distinctive guitar style and melodic blues mixed with traditional gospel music, made her a trailblazer — as did the range of her voice, which resounded with conviction as she sang the words “rock me!” With this song, she made it plain that her words could not only transcend lines of faith, but could also represent a shift in popular music in real time.

Yet the spirit in her music never broke. She soon gained a celebrity status and even became a legend amongst black soldiers fighting in World War II. After the war, Tharpe started working with Sammy Price and produced a famous spiritual single, “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” with Decca Records. As Gayle Wald’s biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe puts it, the song specifically references what was happening in the mid-1940s: WWII was ending; the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima; Jackie Robinson had just been signed to the major leagues. The expression “strange things” helped to express the uneasiness of the bewildering events going on in the world, and Tharpe translated that seamlessly through her music.

In 1950, the duo and partnership split. One year later, Sister Rosetta Tharpe married Russell Morrison, her manager. The wedding took place in a baseball stadium in Washington D.C., where over 20,000 paying customers attended, and a concert was recorded and later released as an album. Shortly after, Tharpe’s career began dwindling down in the U.S. It was then that young white men started taking over the rock ‘n’ roll scene and experimenting further with the sounds she had forged.

While Tharpe has historically been overlooked in rock ‘n’ roll history, she has, in recent years, been rightfully celebrated as a woman who broke every norm, and has a central place in the Turning the Tables canon. She was a gospel singer at heart who became a celebrity by forging a new path musically, a queer woman who toured with her partner and a fearless black artist who was in love with crafting a new sound. Through her unforgettable voice and gospel swing crossover style, Tharpe influenced a generation of musicians including Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and countless others. Her career, which spanned four decades, was grounded in both her confidence and the characteristic rawness she brought to her performances night after night. She was, and is, an unmatched artist.

SOURCE: New York Times; Philadelphia Citizen; N.P.R.

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