Watch Rock Pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe Wow Audiences With Her Gospel Guitar

The “British Inva­sion” as a his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, has achieved a sta­tus almost like that of Paul Revere’s ride, a water­shed moment con­densed to a sin­gu­lar image: The Stones, or—if you’re more inclined, The Beatles—step onto the tar­mac, young girls scream, cam­eras flash, micro­phones jos­tle… suits abound. We remem­ber the scenery, and the hair­cuts, but the his­to­ry dis­ap­pears. The all impor­tant con­text when the British land­ed in the mid six­ties has to do with anoth­er inva­sion at the same time on England’s shores, of black Amer­i­can blues artists who toured the UK and per­formed on British TV, begin­ning in 1963: Howl­in’ Wolf, Big Joe Williams, Mud­dy Waters, Light­nin’ Hop­kins… and Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe.

If Kei­th Richards has cred­it­ed Chuck Berry for his chops, say­ing he “lis­tened to every lick he played and picked it up,” he could per­haps say some­thing sim­i­lar about Sis­ter Tharpe, as could dozens of oth­er gui­tarists who watched her strut across the stage, pick­ing out hot, coun­tri­fied blues licks on her Gib­son SG. “Nobody—not Chuck Berry, not Scot­ty Moore, not James Bur­ton, not Kei­th Richards—played wilder or more pri­mal rock ‘n’ roll gui­tar than this woman who gave her life to God and would have cel­e­brat­ed her 100th birth­day on 20 March,” writes The Guardian.

And yet, per­haps because of her reli­gios­i­ty, or her race, or her gen­der, Sis­ter Tharpe has long remained unsung as a hero of both ear­ly rock ‘n’ roll and coun­try.

A pio­neer­ing crossover artist from the gospel world, Tharpe came from Cot­ton Plant, Arkansas, a town on the banks of the Mis­sis­sip­pi. Born to musi­cal par­ents, she toured the coun­try with her moth­er in revival per­for­mances across the south and made her first record at the age of 23. By the time she took the Man­ches­ter stage to sing “Didn’t it Rain” in the video at the top of the post, Tharpe was 49 years old and a high­ly sea­soned, con­fi­dent per­former who could cap­ti­vate any audi­ence with her pow­er­ful voice and phe­nom­e­nal play­ing. Just above, see a younger Tharpe play some jazz-inflect­ed blues in “That’s All,” a sexy-sound­ing song about tol­er­ance for sin­ful men. Sis­ter Tharpe worked clean, but she could get down with the best of ‘em.

Like most rock pio­neers, Roset­ta didn’t have an easy road to star­dom, and like many women in the music busi­ness, her sto­ry involves a fair amount of exploita­tion and abuse. But Tharpe rose above it, moved to the big city, and pitched her south­ern gospel tent in the heart of elec­tric blues ter­ri­to­ry. Learn about Roset­ta Tharpe’s life and career in the 2014 doc­u­men­tary above, The God­moth­er of Rock & Roll. It’s a title Tharpe well deserves, as well as some long over­due recog­ni­tion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Web Project Immor­tal­izes the Over­looked Women Who Helped Cre­ate Rock and Roll in the 1950s

Mud­dy Waters, Howl­in’ Wolf, Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe & Oth­er Amer­i­can Blues Leg­ends Per­form in the UK (1963–66)

Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock & Roll, Is 85

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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