Inductee Insights: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe astounded audiences with her guitar pyrotechnics and powerful soprano.
America’s first gospel rock star, she paved the way for rock & roll to grip new audiences. Her heartfelt folksiness gave way to her roaring mastery of her trusted Gibson SG, which she wielded on a level that rivaled the best of her contemporaries. Dive into her legacy and wide-ranging influence in her Inductee Insights episode powered by PNC Bank.
the godmother of rock 'n' roll
At the age 23, Tharpe signed with Decca Records, receiving second billing to famed band leader Cab Calloway. Her break out in 1938 came with the release of her first single – “Rock Me” – the first ever gospel session recorded at Decca. Songs “That’s All” and “The Lonesome Road” followed her successful release. These recordings exemplified Sister Rosetta’s early sound – stirring gospel vocals accompanied by her exhilarating resonator guitar. Following these recordings, Sister Rosetta became a sensation – even though her mixture of gospel lyrics with secular music stirred controversy.
Tharpe’s popularity and resonance only grew throughout the 1940s. During World War II, she fronted Lucky Millinder’s popular big band where young fans of swing gravitated towards her music. Servicemen and women were introduced to her on government-issued “V-discs.”
one of rock's first stars
Collaborating with boogie-woogie pianist Sam Price in 1944, Sister Rosetta released “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. The song was a smash, reaching #2 on the Billboard R&B chart. It was the first gospel song to make Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade. “Strange Things…” was an early model for rock and roll, capturing the attitude of the music to come. Even the young and unknown Jerry Lee Lewis chose her hit for his audition song at Sun Records.
Sister Rosetta teamed up with gospel singer Marie Knight in the late-1940s, and the two would record some of their most enduring work together, including 1947’s “Didn’t It Rain” and 1948’s “Up Above My Head.”
Sister Rosetta sold out arena shows into the 1950’s. As a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll star, twenty-five thousand fans paid to attend her 1951 wedding at Griffith Stadium in Washington DC. Always the savvy businesswoman, Sister Rosetta’s performance at the wedding was recorded and released as a top-selling record.
As her celebrity began to wane in America in the sixties, she toured Europe with Muddy Waters, where she captured the interest and fandom of a new generation of British blues rockers, including Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton.
inspiring generations of rockers
Tharpe’s impact on rock and roll music is undeniable. As the “the Godmother of Rock & Roll” Sister Rosetta’s influence extended far beyond her own career. Johnny Cash called her his favorite singer, covering several songs on his 1979 gospel album A Believer Sings the Truth. Elvis Presley performed her version of “Up Above My Head” at his 1968 comeback special. The Staple Singers. Nina Simone. Paul Butterfield. Van Morrison. Led Zeppelin. The Grateful Dead – these are a handful of artists who’ve covered Tharpe’s classic blues song “Nobody’s Fault But Mine. “ Her 1950s rendition of the traditional gospel song “This Train” directly influenced Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 song “Land of Hope and Dreams”. The comparisons and sonic similarities roll on through each of rock’s eras.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt once said, “[Sister Rosetta] blazed a trail for the rest of us women guitarists…She has long been deserving of wider recognition and a place of honor in the field of music history.” Sister Rosetta’s 2018 Induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame cements her legacy as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding members.