Music

Who Is Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

You need to know the black queer female guitarist and artist from the '30s who paved the way for Rock and Roll—and has finally been recognized by the Hall of Fame.
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The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2018 inductees this morning. This year’s list includes well-known artists and groups including Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, and Nina Simone.

 

One name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, may not have quite as much recognition among audiences today, though it should.

 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who passed away in 1973, has been chosen to receive the Award for Early Influence. Before Elvis and Johnny Cash became the hip swiveling faces of Rock & Roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a well-deserving queer black woman who helped invent and usher in Rock & Roll as a genre of popular music, and who has been largely overshadowed by those who came after her, despite her invaluable cultural contributions to music — gospel and R&B, included.

 

In 1915, she was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, AR. Tharpe came from a traditional evangelist family of religious singers and cotton pickers. Music was an integral part of Tharpe’s childhood, and she started playing guitar when she was four-years-old. She sang gospel music in southern churches until she and her mother moved to Chicago when she was six-years-old. These two contrasting life experiences – the urban and the rural – blended together to shape her musical style, both in terms of her guitar playing and her singing. Tharpe married a preacher when she was 19, but the marriage didn’t last long, and she left him for the musical opportunities of New York City.

 

Her risk paid off: Once in New York, Tharpe played with musical legends like Duke Ellington. In her twenties, she toured around the south with the American gospel group, The Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1945, her gospel single, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” became the first to cross over to Billboard’s “race records” chart, which later became Rhythm & Blues, ultimately today’s R&B.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

That relationship ended in the 1950’s, and Tharpe went on to marry her manager, Russell Morrison. They were married in a baseball stadium in Washington D.C., as over 20,000 paying customers watched the ceremony, and then a concert, which they recorded and sold as an album.

 

As white men began dominating Rock & Roll, and capitalizing on the cultural pathways paved by people like Tharpe, her career began to fade from the forefront in the 1950s.  

 

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s decision to induct Sister Rosetta Tharpe, if not late, is necessary; without her the genre would not be what it is today, and perhaps would not be at all. She was truly the Godmother of Rock & Roll.

 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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