The Life & Music of the Godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

An Intro­duc­tion to Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe

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

Watch the Hot Gui­tar Solos of Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe

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

The Women of Rock: Dis­cov­er an Oral His­to­ry Project That Fea­tures Pio­neer­ing Women in Rock Music

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.

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