The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Suffragettees to Juke-Joints

The Foremothers / Roots of Rock


Read the brief bios below to learn about Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Billie Holiday.  Click on each image to watch vintage performances of these pioneers.


Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (1894-1937) earned the title of “Empress of the Blues” by virtue of her forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre. Her singing displayed a soulfully phrased, boldly delivered and nearly definitive grasp of the blues. In addition, she was an all-around entertainer who danced, acted and performed comedy routines with her touring company. She was the highest-paid black performer of her day and arguably reached a level of success greater than that of any African-American entertainer before her. Watch the seminal performance of Smith in the 1929 hit, St. Louis Blues.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe

African-American gospel singer and guitar virtuoso, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was a flamboyant gospel superstar who demonstrated spectacular virtuosity on the newly electrified guitar and became one of the most imporatnt singer-musicians of the 20th century.  She is acknowledged as a major influence not only on generations of black musicians including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Isaac Hayes and Etta James, but also on white stars like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Watch Tharpe perform "Down By the Riverside


Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) reigned as a pioneer interpreter of gospel music whose fervent contralto was one of the great voices of this century. Both gospel and rhythm & blues had their roots in the Sanctified church, but whereas blues and R&B departed on secular paths that led to rock and roll, gospel stayed the spiritual course. Nonetheless, the influence of gospel on R&B and rock and roll, especially through such force-of-nature voices as Jackson’s, is inescapable. Little Richard has cited Jackson as an inspiration, calling her “the true queen of spiritual singers.” Watch  Jackson singing "Amazing Grace."


Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was the pre-eminent jazz singer of her day and among the most revered vocalists of the century. Though her brief life was fraught with tragedy, Holiday left a transcendent legacy of recorded work. Her pearly voice, exquisite phrasing and tough-tender persona influenced the likes of Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, among others. Watch Holiday sing "Strange Fruit."



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