Watch the Hot Guitar Solos of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “America’s First Gospel Rock Star”

Many of us first encounter Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe—now deserved­ly known as the “God­moth­er of Rock and Roll”—in footage from her 1964 appear­ance on a Man­ches­ter rail­way plat­form. She arrives by car­riage, struts out before a dilap­i­dat­ed train sta­tion, plugs in her cus­tom Gib­son SG, and belts out in her pow­er­ful sopra­no, “Didn’t it rain, chil­dren!” for an audi­ence of spell­bound Brits. The tele­vised per­for­mance, part of The Amer­i­can Folk Blues Fes­ti­val that toured the coun­try between 1963 and 1966, made a sig­nif­i­cant impres­sion on blues and rock gui­tarists of the Inva­sion gen­er­a­tion.

Yet Tharpe’s influ­ence extends a gen­er­a­tion fur­ther back, to rock and roll’s acknowl­edged fore­fa­thers. She was 49 when Kei­th Richards and Eric Clap­ton had the chance to see her on TV, and had been tour­ing Europe since 1957, reviv­ing a career she launched in 1938 when she released her first sin­gle, “Rock Me,” and took the stage as a reg­u­lar per­former at the Cot­ton Club.

Born Roset­ta Nubin in Arkansas in 1915, she start­ed per­form­ing in church­es and revivals at 6, and scan­dal­ized many of her gospel fans by singing sec­u­lar music. But her force­ful, soar­ing voice and inno­v­a­tive gui­tar play­ing most­ly drew them back again, along with thou­sands of sec­u­lar admir­ers.

She was a rock and roll pio­neer in every respect: a gospel singer who crossed over onto the pop­u­lar charts, a black queer woman play­ing the fierce lead for mixed audi­ences dur­ing seg­re­ga­tion, fronting tour­ing bands that includ­ed the all-white Jor­danaires, best known for lat­er back­ing Elvis. She was “America’s first gospel rock star,” notes the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame intro­duc­tion above, before there were such things as rock stars. Her 1945 sin­gle “Strange Things Hap­pen­ing Every Day,” with its “hot gui­tar solo,” Will Her­mes writes at Rolling Stone, “was the first gospel sin­gle to cross over on the Bill­board race charts” and is some­times cit­ed as the first rock and roll song.

The fol­low­ing year, she met singer and piano play­er Marie Knight. The two became lovers, record­ed “Up Above My Head,” and toured togeth­er in the late 40s as a team before Tharpe mar­ried her third hus­band at Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Grif­fith Sta­di­um in front of 25,000 fans. At the height of her fame, “she influ­enced innu­mer­able… peo­ple who we rec­og­nize as foun­da­tion­al fig­ures in rock and roll,” says biog­ra­ph­er Gayle Wald. John­ny Cash named her as his favorite singer. “Every­one from Jer­ry Lee Lewis to Aretha Franklin” to Lit­tle Richard “cred­it her musi­cian­ship as an impor­tant influ­ence on them,” writes Erin White at Afrop­unk.

But it was her gui­tar skills that most awed musi­cians like Chuck Berry and Elvis. Pres­ley “loved Sis­ter Roset­ta,” the Jor­danaires’ Gor­don Stok­er remem­bers, espe­cial­ly her play­ing. “That’s what real­ly attract­ed Elvis: her pickin’.” Tharpe’s style con­tains with­in it a trea­sury of the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music that would trans­mute into R&B, rock­a­bil­ly, and rock and roll—from west­ern swing to coun­try to gospel to jazz to the blues. At the top of the post, see a com­pi­la­tion of solos from her tele­vised appear­ances, includ­ing some seri­ous shred­ding in lat­er con­certs in the late six­ties, broad­cast in col­or.

Tharpe con­tin­ued to tour the con­ti­nent until 1970, when she played her last con­cert in Copen­hagen. She died three years lat­er, near­ly obscure in her home coun­try, her lega­cy over­shad­owed by male artists. But we should hear her in Chuck Berry’s first records, and “when you see Elvis Pres­ley singing ear­ly in his career,” says Wald, “imag­ine he is chan­nel­ing Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe.” Thanks to revived inter­est in Tharpe herself—from Wald’s 2008 biog­ra­phy to her 2018 induc­tion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—the “God­moth­er of Rock and Roll” con­tin­ues inspir­ing new play­ers to pick up the gui­tar, espe­cial­ly those who aren’t used to see­ing gui­tarists who look like them in gui­tar hero his­to­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Revis­it The Life & Music of Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe: ‘The God­moth­er of Rock and Roll’

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

Mud­dy Waters and Friends on the Blues and Gospel Train, 1964

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

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