Today, we celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the greatest American musical icons of her generation. She has been cited as a major influence by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Aretha Franklin, among others. Combining gospel, blues, jazz, and early rock & roll, Tharpe created a sound that was as unmistakable as it was revolutionary.
Raised in the church, Tharpe performed at sermons with her mother, absorbing gospel music and culture. For most of her career she remained true to her gospel roots, but she made the genre accessible to a secular audience. With guitar in hand, she helped pioneer a musical style that would change the face of popular music.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe had an expansive career that lasted decades. She went on tour with her mother at only six years old, playing at Baptist Churches across the South. Eventually Tharpe would play at incredibly diverse venues, from dive bars to train station platforms, to Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall. When she was in her fifties, Tharpe had her leg amputed as a result of complications from diabetes. The amputation didn't slow her down. She continued to perform solo and with collaborators, including Marie Knight and Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1973, with a new album in the works, Sister Rosetta Tharpe suffered a stroke. She passed away on October 9th of that year at 58 years old. Her body rests at Northwood Cemetary in Philadelphia, where a grave marker was just recently put down for her.
Tharpe's is a legacy that is sometimes overlooked, but not forgotten. In recent years there has been more focus on her roll in shaping American music. She has been the subject of several articles and documentaries, including PBS's American Masters. Her importance as an artist is far from negligible. A woman of great talent and showmanship, Sister Rosetta Tharpe bridged gospel and rock into popular music. Without her, American music likely would not have arrived at what it is today.
Let's look back at some of her most memorable performances.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe "Up Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air"
Here we find Tharpe in her element, flanked by gospel singers. At about 1:24, Tharp plays a knock-out guitar solo that builds in intensity. She moves passionately with her Gibson Les Paul SG as though it was an extension of herself. This song was co-written by Tharpe's musical partner Marie Knight, who toured alongside her for large portions of her career.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe "That's All"
If there's any video that proves that Tharpe was a pioneer for rock & roll it's this one. "That's All" follows a variation of a twelve bar blues. She's joined by drums, double bass, trumpet, and trombone.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe "This Train"
Here's a more laid-back, soulful performance from Tharpe. A tune about living a clean, virtuous life, this one sounds like it's straight from the church choir.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe “Didn't It Rain”
Performing at a train station in Manchester, England in 1964, Tharpe draws a large audience. She's escorted from a horse carriage onto the make-shift stage and tears right into the song. She is older here, and her physical appearance doesn't fit the rock star archetype. But this dissonance between expectation and reality makes Tharpe all the more appealing.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe "Trouble In Mind"
Here's Tharp again from her televised performance in Manchester. This one's got a swagger to it.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll PBS American Masters Documentary
For more on Sister Rosetta Tharpe's life and influence, watch the hour-long documentary above via PBS.
We remember Sister Rosetta Tharpe today so that her influence on American music is not ignored. Tharpe isn't in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; she doesn't have a stack of biographies written about her or even a tribute website. But anyone who has seen or heard her perform, whether in person, on TV, or on YouTube, feels her impact. Let's hope that a new generation will discover and enjoy the music of this incredible icon.