The Woman Who Invented Rock n’ Roll: An Introduction to Sister Rosetta Tharpe

When peo­ple would ask her about her music, she would say, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that for­ev­er.”

- Gayle Wald, author of Shout, Sis­ter, Shout!: The Untold Sto­ry of Rock-and-Roll Trail­blaz­er Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe

What do rock and roll pio­neers Elvis Pres­leyChuck Berry, and Lit­tle Richard have in com­mon, besides belong­ing to the inau­gur­al (and all male) class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees?

They were all deeply influ­enced by Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe, the God­moth­er of Rock and Roll, and the sub­ject of the col­lage-hap­py Poly­phon­ic video essay, above.

(I’d rethink the essay­ist’s choice to obscure Tharpe’s right hand with an unnec­es­sary cut out of a float­ing gui­tar super­im­posed over archival con­cert footage. Here’s an unob­struct­ed view.)

Berry described his career as “one long Roset­ta Tharpe imper­son­ation.”

Pres­ley was cap­ti­vat­ed by her unique gui­tar-pick­ing style, record­ing sev­er­al songs that had been hits for the church-reared Tharpe, includ­ing “Up Above My Head,” “Just A Clos­er Walk With Thee,” “This Train and Down By The River­side.”

And Lit­tle Richard’s first big break at 14 came com­pli­ments of Tharpe, who over­heard him singing some of her gospel tunes, and spon­ta­neous­ly invit­ed him to open for her at the Macon City Audi­to­ri­um.

She was the trail­blaz­ers’ trail blaz­er in ways that go beyond rock and roll:

She was one of the few African-Amer­i­can female per­form­ers to appear on a V‑Disc, a joint effort on the part of the gov­ern­ment and the record indus­try to ship morale-boost­ing 78RPM records to over­seas troops dur­ing World War II.

Her personalized—and self-designed—tour bus was a music indus­try first, ensur­ing that she and her tour­mate (and alleged lover), Marie Knight, would be able to dine and sleep in com­fort as African-Amer­i­cans trav­el­ing dur­ing seg­re­ga­tion.

She hired the all-white, all-male Grand Old Opry stars the Jor­danaires to back her up, a bold move for an artist of col­or in 1938.

Her style, and like­ly per­son­al met­tle, owed a lot to her moth­er, the singing, man­dolin-play­ing evan­ge­list Katie Bell Nubin, who relo­cat­ed from Arkansas to Chica­go, to join a Pen­te­costal con­gre­ga­tion where women were allowed to preach and six-year-old “Rosie” was placed atop the piano, so peo­ple in the back could see her as she per­formed.

After a brief mar­riage to a preach­er, Tharpe hit New York City, where she embarked on a sec­u­lar career, per­form­ing in night­clubs with the likes of Duke Elling­ton and Cab Cal­loway.

The flip side of adu­la­tion by soon-to-be rock and roll greats was rejec­tion by many of the devout Chris­tians who had cel­e­brat­ed her gifts when they were offered up in a pure­ly gospel con­text.

Her fame was eclipsed by the rise of those she’d influ­enced.

The pub­lic may have for­got­ten her for a time, but the star­ry names in her debt did not.

John­ny Cash sin­gled her out as one of his heroes in his 1992 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induc­tion speech.

And three years ago, the God­moth­er of Rock and Roll was final­ly induct­ed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame her­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s com­pa­ny The­ater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based vari­ety series, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain, and the world pre­miere of Greg Kotis’ new musi­cal, I AM NOBODY. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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