Sure, Keith Richards borrowed some of his best licks from Chuck Berry. But do you know who Chuck Berry borrowed from? Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was one of the pioneers of 20th century music, a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure who fused gospel and blues into something new. “Listen to her recordings,” said singer-songwriter Joan Osborne, “and you can hear all the building blocks of rock and roll.” Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash each named Tharpe as one of their fondest childhood influences. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain,” said Bob Dylan on his radio program. “She was a big, good-looking woman and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature–a guitar-playing, singing evangelist.”
Yet despite the enormity of her influence, Tharpe has been virtually forgotten by the mainstream culture. For many years following her death in 1973, she lay in an unmarked grave. In the last decade, though, there has been a slow resurgence of appreciation for Tharpe. In 2004 Osborne, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Rait and other artists joined together for a tribute album called Shout, Sister, Shout! A biography of the same name, by Gayle Wald, was published in 2007. And in 2011–the same year Tharpe’s grave finally received a headstone, thanks to a fundraising concert– filmmaker Mike Csaky directed a documentary called The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, which aired this February on PBS as part of the American Masters series. You can watch the full 53-minute film below.
And for a quick example of Tharpe’s stunning artistry and stage presence, you can start by watching the short clip above, from a 1960s Sunday-morning television program produced in Chicago and distributed by NBC called TV Gospel Time, in which Tharpe sings the gospel standard “Up Above My Head.” Sources differ on the exact year of the performance (TV Gospel Time was broadcast from late 1962 until 1966.) but PBS gives it as 1964–1965. Two-thirds of the way into the song is the famous electric guitar solo that was featured in the French film Amelie. “Tharpe didn’t just play the guitar,” writes her biographer Wald, “she owned it. Like a snake-charmer, she coaxed sounds out of the instruments, turning wood and metal into lomething alive yet completely under her control. her contemporaries referred to this as making a guitar ‘talk.’ Sometimes, too, they said she played ‘like a man,’ as though a woman wasn’t capable of projecting such command–or a woman-in-gospel conveying such palpable eroticism.”
Also featuring Sister Rosetta Tharpe: