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 Presley, Chuck 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.
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.