When I was a wee lad I was interested in the history of rock and roll. Where did it come from? Who started it? But also when I was wee, there didn’t seem to be a lot of information around, certainly not in my library downtown. But when Muddy Waters died in 1983, I started to understand that rock and roll was sped-up blues, and pieces started to slot together. However, women weren’t part of the equation. (Blame Rolling Stone Magazine).
That’s a long way of saying the Sister Rosetta Tharpe should be better known than she is, especially as one dubbed the Godmother of Rock and Roll. Playing scratchy, distorted electric guitar and singing as if on a direct line to heaven, Tharpe would go on to influence everybody from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry, and everybody who came after her. So why is she not more of a household name?
The 2011 BBC documentary above (split into four 15-minute chunks) resuscitates a legend who not only played a mean guitar but set the standard for the gospel-crossover artist, making a name on the gospel circuit, but making her fame in the secular nightclubs of America. Tharpe’s distinction is that she returned to gospel without losing any of her edge.
A precocious youngster in Arkansas during the early 1920s, she became the star of her Pentecostal church starting at four years old. Raised by her mother, then forced into an arranged marriage at 19-years-old to an older preacher, Thomas Tharpe, she kept his name when she left their abusive marriage. She and her mother relocated to Chicago, where blues and jazz were intermingling in a hothouse culture. Decca signed her, and although she told her churchgoing friends that she had to sing these secular songs because of that darned seven-year contract, Tharpe rose to fame quickly. The footage of her singing in front of the Cotton Club band led by Lucky Millinder is one of a cheeky, charming 23 year old.
As the doc makes clear, Tharpe had a rebellious streak, didn’t do what she was told, and pushed boundaries in a very segregated America. She invited the all-white Jordanaires to tour with her, surprising house managers and booking agents alike. And she carried on a love affair and creative partnership with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight for decades, very much on the down low.
So perhaps this is the reason Tharpe has not been on our collective radar—we’ve been slow to admit that rock guitar was created by a queer black woman devoted to the Lord. Nobody in the audience knew this, though, at the abandoned railway station at Wilbraham Road, Manchester, in May 1964. On one side of the station’s tracks, British teenagers were gathered to hear raw, rock and roll from America. On the other side, Tharpe stands with her guitar, wearing a thick coat to protect her from the spring rain. Backed by her band, she channels a holy force and sings about the rain of the Great Flood, the lyrics abstract and repetitive, as if in a trance. The footage opens the documentary and makes as good a case as any of why Tharpe should be part of the pantheon of rock royalty. (You can see the whole clip here.) Back in the States, Tharpe had been eclipsed by Mahalia Jackson, but the Brits didn’t know any of that. They just sense they’ve tapped into one of the sources for the music exploding around them.
It took until 2018 for Tharpe to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, years after all those white boy copycats. Now is the time to re-discover her and hear what you’ve been missing.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.