Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during 2018 with an award for “Early Influence.” The Hall of Fame hailed her as one of the essential figures in the history of rock and roll” and said that “if she had not been there as a model and inspiration, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other rock originators would have had different careers.”
“No one deserves more to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”
Born in 1915, Rosetta Tharpe was a major star during the 1940s and 50s, sensationally filling arenas. In 1951, Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. sold out, with 25,000 fans clamouring to attend her on-stage wedding. Her trail-blazing rock ’n’ roll tinged gospel performances, driven by her exceptional electric guitar work, sent audiences wild made her a major celebrity. She inspired the early generation of rock ‘n’ roll artists and Johnny Cash called her his favourite singer and biggest inspiration.
An early musical prodigy, Rosetta’s guitar chops were formidable. Reports from people who saw her play repeatedly used the phrase: “she could make that guitar talk.” She played the guitar with abandon, and yet still maintained control. There was power, excitement, pleasure and emotional release in her playing. Gayle Wild, her biographer, says that for Rosetta, the guitar was “an instrument of ineffable speech, of rapture beyond words.” Etta James was blown away by her playing, saying, “she payed guitar kind of like T-Bone Walker, in a real “bad” groove.” One musical director in New York said,
“She could do runs, sequences, arpeggios, and she could play anything. You could say something and she could make that guitar say it…I mean she could put that guitar behind her and play it: she could sit on the floor and play it, she could lay down and play it. And that made the people just go berserk.”
Rosetta was raised by her mother Katie and grew up immersed in the black Church of God in Christ, where Rosetta began to sing and play from an early age. By the time she was a teenager, she and her mother were touring the gospel circuit in the northern Midwest, where tent and revival meetings shaped her musical techniques, learning how to project over shouting, crying and singing worshippers, and developing a guitar playing style that enabled her to be heard and her playing seen by the congregation. Her trademark style of lyrical improvisation was likewise developed at this time.
After leaving the church for a period of time and making it big in the jazz clubs of New York City during the Swing Era (she became known as the “swinger of spirituals”) and playing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, Rosetta returned to her sanctified roots as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, developing a successful career that was both career and calling.
Rosetta’s faith was a constant throughout her life, singing her gospel songs like Precious Memories and Didn’t It Rain, right up until her death. At her funeral, the eulogy said that, “she always testified of God’s goodness to her and he undying love for Him. She suffered a lot but she realized that if we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him.”
No doubt it was that faith that sustained her during the struggles she had during her life, both as an African American and as a woman. She lived and performed during the Jim Crow era in America, where for black artists, pervasive racial discrimination and police harassment was a deeply resented fact of life. As she toured, she could not eat at most restaurants, stay in most hotels or use public toilets. To get around the problem of restaurants not serving black people, she employed a white chauffeur, who, when they had an emergency need for food when travelling, would go into the restaurant and buy food for the whole group. She sings, in her release of “Trouble in Mind” in 1941, “When you see me laughin’, I’m laughin’ just to keep from crying,” poignantly conveying the pain of the black community.
She also suffered a considerable amount of domestic abuse. Her first husband, Tommy Tharpe, was a preacher who benefited greatly from his association with Rosetta, but he was unfaithful to her and beat her. She married Foch Allen, after her divorce to Tharpe in 1943, but he proved to be both unsupportive to her career and abusive, interested only in what he could get out of her. Her third husband, Russell Morrison, whom she married in a fabulous stadium wedding, exploited her financially, insisting on her performing towards the end of her life when she was very ill.
It’s a familiar story with women artists, maybe particularly black women artists – Billy Holliday, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Rihanna. As Zora Neale Hurston put it in Their Eyes Were Watching God “De n***** woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Rates of domestic abuse are bad enough generally, but black women suffer from much higher rates of death from domestic violence than others. Unbelievably, the state of Mississippi still refuses to make domestic violence and other abuse grounds for divorce. What a disgrace. Sadly, as music journalist Jim De Rogatis said in a 2013 interview, “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”
Yet Rosetta had the strength of will and personality to rise above the enormous obstacles and set-backs she faced. Armed with her faith, her huge talent and her charisma, she paved the way, howling and stamping and wielding a mean electric guitar, for the rock ‘n’ roll artists who would follow her and lived a life that continues to reverberate and influence right up to the present.
Read the biography of this remarkable woman: Gayle F. Wald, Shout, Sister Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer, Sister Rosetta Sharpe.
And for a fine collection of her songs: The Absolutely Essential 3 Cd Collection Box Set
And check out this terrific cover of the Tommy Dorsey song that Rosetta made her own, by Brooks Williams and Hans Theessink.