One of the great tragedies in music is when a great and groundbreaking artist is forgotten by history. However, as long as a few people remember, their legacy can endure.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Mention that name to most music fans today, and you’ll be met with confused looks. When I talk about her, even in the company of other guitar players, I’m often asked, “Who?” or told, “Never heard of her.” To me, that is a great tragedy, because she had one of the biggest voices, finest guitar styles and most exciting stage presences to come out of the 30’s and 40’s.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Arkansas in 1915. Not much is known about her father, but her mother was very musically inclined and incorporated that into her job as a preacher, and Rosetta took to the guitar at a very young age. Throughout her youth, she moved several times, but continued to sing and play her guitar, refining a style that eventually led her to become known as one of the best Gospel artists of her time. Gospel is not often associated with high energy, distorted electric guitars today, but in the 1930’s and 40’s, Sister Rosetta’s sound is what brought Gospel to a mainstream audience. Taking the emotional melodies of the Blues, and combining the energy of southern church spirituals, she pioneered a guitar style and musical sound that would go on to influence legends like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In the following video, you can see just how talented of a performer she was, and the type of blistering Blues guitar she could play during her solo.
Unfortunately, despite her popularity in the middle of the 20th century, an ill-fated attempt at a secular Blues album in the early 50’s led to the demise of her career. Religious fans viewed it as a betrayal, and secular fans were hesitant to take a chance on an artist who had gotten her start in the churches. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Blues and African American music in general began to appeal to white audiences as well, but those young fans were rebelling against their parents, and society, and part of that rebellion was a rejection of the church. Sister Rosetta continued touring however, but was never regarded as the superstar she had been in previous decades. Sister Rosetta suffered from Diabetes, and in 1970, had a stroke while on tour with Blues legend Muddy Waters. She ended up having a leg amputated, but continued to perform until she passed away in 1973, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after having another stroke.
One of the side effects of African American music moving into the mainstream was that many artists were forgotten, or denied the credit they deserved. This was the case with Sister Rosetta, who despite her immense talent, and popularity among Gospel and Blues audiences, has now been largely forgotten by all but students of music history, and those fortunate enough to have been alive during her prime. Elvis Presley’s popularity in the 50’s and 60’s is largely regarded as a double edged sword where African American music is concerned, because on one hand, he made his career off of performing covers of Blues and Gospel songs without giving proper credit. On the other hand, some people feel that he brought the Blues to a wider audience, and thereby enabled the original artists to grow their popularity as well. Whichever side of that argument you fall, the sad truth is that many incredible musicians have been largely forgotten, or at least denied credit for their work.
Sister Rosetta’s impact on Rock and Roll may not be common knowledge, but that doesn’t change the fact that she played an incredible role in pioneering the sound that eventually became the most popular music in history. She broke through barriers constantly through her career and left an incredible musical and cultural legacy that lives in her music, and the music of those she influenced.
The Godmother of Rock and Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe – BBC Documentary