Queer muscian, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is FINALLY getting her place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and you know what?
IT’S ABOUT BLOODY TIME!
Rosetta was a singer/songwriter who rose to fame in the 30’s and 40’s by fusing gospel with seriously funky rhythms; helping give birth to Rock & Roll.
Sadly her contribution often gets forgotten by mainstream audiences.
Some critics argue this is due to her music not being solely rock & roll as it fused gospel with it…and totally not because she was a black woman…
But I would argue that there is tons of irrefutable evidence that Rosetta’s pioneering sound, left its mark on future groundbreaking musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others.
So lets give the nice lady her due and discover how Rosetta came to forge rock & roll!
In the beginning, there was Rosetta
Rosetta was born in 1915 Arkansas, close to the Mississippi. She was singing gospel music AND learning to play the guitar by the age of 4 (basically a born over achiever)
Realising her daughter had a heck of a talent Rosetta’s mother took her to Chicago to join the evangelical Church of God in Christ ( a church famed for it’s musicians) when she was 6 years old.
Rosetta was in heaven! Here she could play music everyday; honing her skills as a singer and experimenting with electric guitars.
It was this electric experimentation that led to Rosetta developing distortion techniques that gave birth to Blues Rock.
Rosetta Births Rock & Roll
When Rosetta was 23 she left the church behind to break out into showbiz and was quickly signed up by Decca Records, where she recorded her ridiculously unique blend of gospel, sensuality and infectiously melodic guitar.
It was the uniqueness made Rosetta into one of the 30’s and 40;s most popular club acts.
Her gospel sound in a seedy cabaret setting was scandalous at the time. This meant that Rosetta was snubbed by religious circles who thought her music evil and her mere act of playing guitar a sin.
Rosetta didn’t care.
In fact she didn’t care so much that in 1944 she recorded what many music aficionados now believe to be the first Rock & Roll song.
Strange Things Happening Everyday, charted at number 2 in the R&B Chart(then known as the Race Chart) and you can hear how their guitar and piano arrangement influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard and basically anyone who picked up a guitar after her.
The Later Years and Lady Love
In the late 40’s Rosetta met fellow gospel singer and rumored lover Marie Knight.
The ladies took their act on tour…which again proved to be controversial (so nothing new for Rosetta…) see two women touring alone with no men (!) was unheard of, not matter how ideal it sounds.
Sadly this wonderful partnership didn’t last. During one gig poor Marie’s mother and two small children were killed in a house fire.
Marie was devastated and moved away from Rosetta and started focusing on her solo music.
After she and Marie parted ways Rosetta hatched an amazing plan.
She’d have a public wedding (sadly to an arsehole of a bloke -which we will get to-) and a concert afterwards; obvs charging tickets for the whole
It all took place in the Griffith stadium in Washington D.C and it was packed to the gills! For those who couldn’t make the day, a recording was released pretty much immediately.
Though the publicity was huge, it didn;’t last for long. Mainly becuase Rosetta’s new husband, Russel Morrison terribly mismanaged her career.
Oh yeah and he was also a cheating bellend. Nice one Russ.
Rosetta moves the fuck on
By this time, Rosetta was due a revamp.
Blues legend Muddy Waters did an incredible tour with Rosetta in the mid 1960’s and they performed a gig in Manchester at a disused railway station.
The concert could have been a disaster though as the heavens opened when it was meant to start.
Rosetta was not having that though. She changed her opening number to ‘Didn’t it Rain?’ arriving on the platform by horse and carriage while it was pissing it down and plugging her guitar in with no worries about it electrocuting her live on stage.
After an entrance like that…Rosetta obviously blew everyone away
Not only that, but she influenced a whole new heap of musicians who’d been in attendance, including Morissey, a couple members of Joy Division and some of the Buzzcocks….so you know, barely anyone important…
The groundbreaking gig was broadcast on UK TV and was cited by critics as a significant cultural event…
You can view her incredible performance here. Try watching this without bouncing around in your seat. Her energy is just incredible!
She plays an amazing guitar solo, then quips with the audience… Pretty good for a woman ain’t it? UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE MILLENIUM!
In the early 1970’s Rosetta had a stroke that stopped her from performing, and a few years later she had her leg amputated because of issues with diabetes.
Rosetta never really recovered from this and she passed away in 973 after suffering another stroke at the age of 58. She was just about to get back in the recording studio.
Heartbreakingly Rosetta was buried without a gravestone, because her family just couldn’t afford one and her funeral was sparsely attended.
Rosetta remained an obscure figure until the turn of the century when her music was rediscovered.
In 2007 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and a concert was held in 2008 to raise money to get Rosetta a gravestone.
In 2008 January 11th was declared ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day’ by the State Governor of Pennsylvania; she was finally getting recognition she so richly deserved.
Then on December 27th 2017 Rosetta was inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influencer.
It’s 40+ years late, but they got there eventually, we wouldn’t have rock n blues without this amazing woman.
Rosetta had the most incredible voice. It’s hard describing it if you’ve not heard her (and seriously we encourage you to seek her out if you haven’t) but her voice is just so joyful and amazingly rich and sumptuous, AND it has magical healing powers. No joke!
What I love about her songs are the underlying message of hope and cheer, she’s telling us ‘Yeah stuff is difficult and a bit shit, but we are gunna carry on anyway and make the fucking best of it!’ So she’s my go to for days I need a good kick up the arse.
This was interesting where can I find out more?
There’s a wonderful documentary on Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Mick Csaky on Youtube, we highly recommend it. https://youtu.be/FKK_EQ4pj9A
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.