She sang, she shredded on electric guitar, she killed live. She was also black, and bi-sexual, and a woman, at a time when it was hard to be any of these things. She is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Rosetta Nubin was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in March 1915.
Her family was poor; they lived in a shanty on the edge of town, along with other black families, and scraped by picking cotton for local, white, plantation owners. It was a hardscrabble existence, below the poverty line.
Southern US states operated at this time under the so-called ‘Jim Crow’ laws; while slavery and segregation were illegal, they will still practically enforced in many aspects of everyday life.
Rosetta’s mother, a single parent after her father had run off, was also a gospel singer, and a member of the local congregation of 'The Church of God in Christ' (COGIC). COGIC was founded as a church where music was closely connected to spirituality, and the services featured live music, and singers.
Rosetta's mother sang at the church, and occasionally went touring with other COGIC performers. Other members of the extended family were also singers and musicians.
And Rosetta quickly identified herself as something of a musical prodigy.
She first picked up a guitar when she was four, and by the time she was 6 she was playing at church, picking out simple songs to accompany her mother on stage.
Rosetta’s extreme youth brought them some renown, and the pair toured around the state, performing a show that was part sermon, part gospel concert.
They were successful enough that they were able to relocate to Chicago, arriving in the mid 1920s. There they continued to build their reputation, playing in front of larger audiences. Ten year old Rosetta was often billed as ‘The guitar playing miracle!’, and adopted the stage name ‘Sister Rosetta’.
Mother and daughter played frequently, most nights and many days, performing in different churches, but also hitting up bandrooms, clubs, fetes, anywhere they could get a gig.
In 1934, Rosetta married Thomas Thorpe, a Chicago preacher who had accompanied them on tour, as a kind of road manager. The marriage was short-lived but the pair parted amicably. Rosetta even kept a variation of her husband’s surname; she was now known as ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe.’
But an even bigger change was coming. All of that gigging had paid off; in 1938, Rosetta was signed by Decca Records.
Rosetta moved to New York, and recorded four tracks for the label; ‘Rock Me’, ‘That's All’, ‘The Man and I’ and ‘The Lonesome Road’. They were the first gospel tracks recorded by a major record company in America, and all four were smash hits.
Sister Rosetta was suddenly famous.
Young, pretty, and formidably talented, Rosetta now cut a swathe through the New York music scene of the 1940s.
Her style was distinctive, with a deep, pulsating voice, matched by her remarkable guitar playing. At a time when few women played the instrument, and almost none on stage, she strapped on a large electric guitar and attacked it with a kind of frenzy, playing faster and louder than anyone had seen before:
‘Tharpe's unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements, and a pulsating swing sound that shocked and awed the audience.’
- Contemporary review
Elvis Presley, one of many famous musicians who would be influenced by Rosetta, would later describe her guitar playing as ‘incredible’. Some of his early racks are said to mic her approach.
Rosetta staged sold out shows at Carnegie Hall, and appeared several times at Harlem’s famous ‘Cotton Club’, where she performed alongside Cab Calloway. Reviews were rapturous.
More hit records followed, including a song called ‘That’s All’, which became her signature tune.
This mid tempo, bluesy song showcased Rosetta’s vocal range, and allowed her a more relaxed, twanging style on the guitar, which was very influential. Chuck Berry later cited this track as a key early influence.
Her 1944 song, ‘Strange Things Happen Every Day’, sounds like nothing else but rock and roll.
You can clearly trace a line from Rosetta Tharpe’s 1940s recordings, through to the first recognised ‘rock’ records of the following decade.
In the late 1940s, Rosetta teamed up with singer Marie Knight, and the pair took to the road again as a duo. Playing a gruelling schedule of dates, with at least one show every day, the pair criss-crossed America several times, and occasionally recorded songs in the studio.
They also became lovers, although this was kept from public view. Homosexuality was still illegal in many parts of the United States, and both thought it might damage Rosetta’s career.
The relationship, professional and personal, lasted until 1949, when the couple went their separate ways. Tharpe’s star was starting to wane, as younger performers began to usurp her popularity, and Knight wanted to strike out on a solo career.
In 1951, Rosetta married her manager, Russell Morrison. She turned the occasion into a public event; 25 000 people paid to attend Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C, and were treated to a live concert, the wedding nuptials, and a fireworks display.
Decca even released an album.
But, by the mid 1950’s, Rosetta was no longer a big star. Although she continued to work, and tour.
In 1964 she joined the Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan tour of England, and played a number of shows across the country. Again, several star musicians of the future would catch her performing, and later cite this as a critical influence on their development; Eric Clapton and Keith Richards among them.
One of her concerts on this tour was recorded and broadcast live on television; Rosetta performing at an abandoned railway station at Wilbraham Road in Manchester.
In a driving rainstorm, Rosetta gamely played her electric guitar, without apparent fear of electrocution, on one platform, while an audience of rapt youngsters sat and watched, awestruck, from the platform opposite.
‘She was a big, good-lookin woman, and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature. I’m sure there are a lot of young English guys who picked up electric guitars after getting a look at her.’
- Bob Dylan
In the 1970’s, Rosetta finally put show business behind her, and retired to Philadelphia where she lived in a small suburban home with her mother. She died in 1973.
‘When you see Elvis Presley singing early in his career … imagine he is channelling Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s not an image I think we’re used to thinking about when we think of rock & roll history – we don’t think about the black woman behind the young white man.’
- Gayle Wald, Rosetta’s biographer
While Sister Rosetta’s influence on the development of rock and roll was initially overlooked, in recent years work has been done to restore her place in music history. As well as Gayle Wald’s biography, ‘Shout Sister Shout!’, there have been several TV documentaries.
Her music is even available on Spotify, alongside the more famous names she helped inspire.