In her day, she toured with Muddy Waters. She influenced Elvis. Johnny Cash. Aretha Franklin.
We give Little Richard credit for laying the groundwork for rock and roll back in the 1950’s, but guess who paved the way for Little Richard? Guess what performer Little Richard loved most as a child?
Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Five-Year-Old On Tour
The Godmother of Rock and Roll was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915.
Her mother was a traveling preacher. Her father? Nobody knows.
Rosetta began singing and playing guitar all over the South and Midwest around the age of five–the age when most kids are struggling to color inside the lines. She’d continue to tour for most of her life.
Even as a young woman, Rosetta showed above-average guitar skills. She wasn’t just strumming chords to sing over, but also playing solo runs and riffs. By age twenty-three she was cutting albums for Decca Records–and soon Rosetta found herself spinning on thousands of turntables all over the country.
She ruffled conservative churchgoers with her biting, bluesy guitar work and raucous arrangements, but nightclubs welcomed her with doors flung wide. Rosetta was a runaway success; the first gospel artist to cross over and spread through the mainstream.
The 1930’s and 40’s made Rosetta a bestseller and a star. Like Charlie Christian, she was one of the very first electric guitar pioneers. She even played with Benny Goodman during the 1930’s, around the time that Charlie Christian joined the band.
As a performer, Sister Rosetta was beyond passionate. She played solos that were funky, low-down sounding, downright nasty at times–it’s not hard to imagine why church audiences of the 30’s and 40’s thought her crass.
But her style was bold and original. Even aside from her guitar playing chops, her voice was commanding. On some of her more uptempo records, the high notes boom in your chest and grip your throat.
Here’s a video of Rosetta tearing it up on an electrified version of “Down By the Riverside.” Don’t miss the solo at 1:25.
Rosetta played Carnegie Hall in 1938. During World War II, she was one of two gospel artists chosen to record “V Disks” (Victory Disks) for troops stationed overseas in an attempt to boost morale.
Rosetta briefly married a preacher, taking his last name of “Thorpe,” but she divorced him four years later and adapted the name to “Tharpe” to keep as a stage name.
She would marry two more times. Rosetta was so popular that in 1957, over 25,000 people paid admission to witness Tharpe’s third marriage, which was held at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. And that was when her career was waning.
Decreasing Sales, a Stroke, and an Amputation
Later in her career when Rosetta abandoned gospel, secular audiences abandoned her in droves. For some reason her sales saw a sharp downturn when she recorded straight blues, and her career never entirely recovered. She was dropped from Decca in the 1950’s.
But she continued to record on other labels for the rest of her life, until she had a stroke in 1970 and lost a leg to diabetes complications. That slowed her down for a while, but she continued to tour–sometimes leaping out of her chair and jumping around the stage on one leg–until another stroke took her the day before she was scheduled to begin recording a new album.
It was 1973. She was fifty-eight years old. For unclear reasons–some say greed–Rosetta’s husband had her buried in an unmarked grave.
But like any true great, Rosetta kept working for years after her death. Her version of “Down By the Riverside” from 1944 made it into the American Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry sixty years after her death. She’s been honored on U.S. postage stamps. Her home was declared a historic site. She’s been featured on NPR and documented by PBS. And in 2007 she took her place in the Blues Hall of Fame.
She tore up the fretboard, played rock and roll before rock and roll existed, and helped steer the course of modern music.
In 2008, volunteers held a benefit concert to get Rosetta a tombstone. And now she’s got one. We owe her much, much more than that–but it’s a start.