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- Jasmijn Groot -


One of rock ’n roll’s most important founders, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), was a gospel artist, who inspired generations of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, amongst them Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. They all surpassed her in fame and recognition, however, and Tharpe was quickly forgotten after her death. During her lifetime, she defied the rules of gender, religion, or music, which made her an absolute trailblazer and inspiration to many. But by the time rock ’n roll had crystallized as a genre, she did not fit in it: rock ’n roll is almost exclusively associated with white guys, not with black queer women playing electric guitar. Although now widely considered the 'godmother of rock ’n roll,' Sister Rosetta Tharpe is still wildly underrated and information on her is scarce and scattered. It is exactly why she tops our Women’s Top 2000 this year.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born as Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in the United States, the daughter of two cotton pickers. She was raised by her mother, who was a travelling evangelist. From the age of four, Rosetta was playing the guitar and singing gospel music in church, and by the time she was six, she was already a travelling performer, going all over the united States, sharing the stage with the likes of Duke Ellington. Through traveling, Rosetta was influenced by other music genres, such as jazz and the blues.

Eventually, Rosetta and her mother settled in Chicago for a couple of years. She got married for the first time at age 19 to Thomas Tharpe, a fellow traveling preacher. The marriage was short-lived, but Rosetta kept his last name. After her divorce, Rosetta moved to New York City with her mother, where she performed in respectable places like Carnegie Hall, as well as risqué bars like the Cotton Club, singing songs such as Four or Five Times, referring to female pleasure during sex. Rosetta sang both religious gospel and secular songs jazz to her audiences.

In the meantime, Rosetta was also signed by Decca Records, and she started recording in 1938. On her records, she combined the gospel music everyone knew, with solos on her electric guitar, plucking it, instead of strumming. The sound she created was something nobody had ever heard before. In her live performances, she would add her swing, charisma, devotion, and her appearance to the mix, performing in fancy dresses and fur coats, donning glittering jewelry. She was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or heard before: a black woman, singing gospel and playing the guitar.

In 1944, Rosetta released the single ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ a song that went on to become the first gospel to chart on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade, the predecessor of the current R&B chart. ‘Strange Things Happen Every Day’ is considered the first rock ’n roll song.

Rosetta recorded and performed often as a solo artist, but was no stranger to performing in ensembles. Her most important partner was Marie Knight, who she saw performing in the mid-1940s. Rosetta was spellbound and went after her to perform together, Rosetta on guitar and Marie on piano. Their most well-known song together was ‘Up Above My Head’. The two women became lovers and were life-long friends. A fire which killed Marie’s her mother and two of her children, put strain on their romantic relationship, which ended in the early 1950s.

The popularity of Rosetta started waning in the late 1950s, when rock ’n roll and rhythm ’n blues, dominated by white men, became all the rage. These new genres stuck to exclusively secular material too, while Rosetta remained devoted to recording religious material. However, she experienced somewhat of a popularity boost outside of her native country, when she began touring Europe in 1957, a continent that had never experienced gospel pop in the flesh before. Rosetta’s performance at an abandoned railway station near Manchester in 1964, which was televised on the national Grenada television network, is still quite famous and is available to watch on YouTube. Rosetta's tour inspired many young British musicians, who would go on to be part of the big British Invasion of the United States later that decade.

Rosetta was overweight for much of her adult life and suffered from diabetes. The disease led to a leg amputation in the late 1960’s. Although in the end she was married three times - her third marriage was a massive public event in a sport stadium, that people could buy tickets for - Rosetta lived together with her mother for most of her life, who predeceased her by only a few years.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973 in Philadelphia, the United States, at the age of 58 of a stroke. Her former partner, Marie Knight, arranged her make up and clothing. Rosetta was buried in an unmarked grave, which only received a headstone decades later, that read the words: “She would sing until you cried, and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe was increasingly recognized as an important influence to rock ’n roll from the 1990s onwards, culminating in her induction into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.


Image: James J. Kriegsman (1938) Publicity photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.


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