Sister Rosetta Tharpe pioneered the Rock n Roll genre as she shredded on electric guitar, belted praises both to God and secular pleasures, and broke the color line touring with white singers, she was gospel’s first superstar, and she most assuredly rocked.
A queer black woman from Arkansas born into a family of religious singers, farm laborers, and traditional evangelists. Rosetta accompanied her mother and started performing at a young age with an evangelical road show. As they traveled across the American south, performing helped to display and refine Tharpe’s natural talent. As Tharpe grew up, she began fusing various musical genres into what would become her signature style, the biggest influence being gospel music.
She moved to Chicago and then New York City, cutting her first Gospel recordings in 1938. The records had significant commercial success, her genre bending sound appealing to crossover audiences even as the lyrics generated controversy among Gospel purists.
For the next 30 years she performed extensively to packed venues across the U.S. and Europe and recorded more than a dozen albums. She performed alongside the likes of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and Lucky Millinder.
Tharpe was an influence on other early rockers, too, including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvi . Later ones took note as well. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain,” said Bob Dylan on his Theme Time Radio Hour show. “She was a big, good-lookin woman, and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin’, singin’ evangelist.”
On October 9, 1973, Sister Rosetta Tharpe died of a stroke at the age of 58. The headstone erected on her grave decades after her death bears these 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.”
While Tharpe and her influence has historically been overlooked but in recent years, she has been rightfully celebrated as a woman who broke every norm, and her legacy lives on in rock artists of today!