Before Bob Dylan, before Joni Mitchell, before Chuck Berry, heck, even before Elvis Presley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was rockin’ it gospel with her electric guitar at a time when such a thing was unimaginable. Born in 1915, the Arkansas native began playing guitar at the age of four and performing with her mother at Southern tent revivals from the age of six. Tharpe stayed on the road until her untimely death at the age of 58, confounding critics and supporters alike with her blend of the spiritual and the secular and inspiring scores of performers along the way.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born Rosetta Nubin, began performing for charismatic evangelical church audiences with her mother in Chicago, where she achieved fame for being such a unique child talent. Throngs of church attendees would flock to Chicago’s Church of God in Christ to witness the “the singing and guitar playing miracle,” performing hymns and dancing on the church piano. From the very beginning, 'Little Rosetta Nubin' understood the importance of a strong stage presence, something that she would carry with her throughout her performing life.
In the 1930’s, Nubin moved to New York, married for the first time, changed her name, and in 1938 was the first gospel artist signed to Decca Records. Her first singles, such as “This Train” and “Rock Me” transformed traditional gospel hymns into rollicking, rhythmic recitations. “Rock Me” was actually a spiritual called “Hide Me in Thy Bosom,” that Tharpe repurposed into a sultry and sensual seduction. Naturally, her gospel fans were displeased, beginning a pattern of confounding audience expectations that she followed through the length of her career.
Nevertheless, Tharpe’s bold artistic stance is largely responsible for bringing gospel music into popular mainstream culture, a feat that proved more profitable than her church-oriented fan base could imagine, but which also resulted in cries of “sellout” from her hardcore gospel constituency.
Around the time of her Decca Records contract, she also signed on as a performer with “Lucky” Millinder's jazz orchestra, and, under contract, she was required to sing songs such as “4 or 5 Times” and “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa,” songs that were explicitly sexual in nature and meant for partying on the dance floor, not for preaching in the pulpit.
By blurring the distinction between traditional church-oriented music and popular nightclub and jukebox entertainment, Tharpe defied convention and proved that it was possible to stay true to one’s muse despite condemnation from one’s peers.
Although it has become relatively commonplace, since the 1960’s, to see female folk singers accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar, and by the 1970’s one could find occasional girl rockers with electric guitars, it was highly unusual to see a female blues singer accompanying herself on electric guitar at the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe was in her prime.
Her voice shook the heavens and her guitar tone could tear down the walls. Her technique was physical and visceral. Watching her play, one can behold as she makes up her solos on the spot, letting her spirit take charge, trusting that it will all work out somehow. She is inspired and surprised, relishing her time bending the strings and running up and down the neck.
“Pretty good for a woman,” she says.
In Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one can see some of the showmanship that Stevie Ray Vaughan would later incorporate into his performance, and traces of technique that Keith Richards would make a fortune from. She is there in the background in 1988 when Joni Mitchell sang “Study war no more” on her album Chalk Mark in the Rain Storm, and when Bob Dylan sang “Some trains don't pull no gamblers/No midnight ramblers like they did before” on Time Out of Mind in 1997, and when the Rolling Stones covered “You Gotta Move” on Sticky Fingers in 1971.
She recorded “The Things That I Used to Do” in 1959, which was later covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1984, and “Precious Memories” in 1947, later covered by Bob Dylan in 1986, and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” in 1941, later covered by Led Zeppelin in 1976. Her 1949 spiritual “Ninety-Nine And A Half Won't Do” was later reworked by Wilson Picket and became a 1968 hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Little Richard, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all cited Sister Rosetta Tharpe as an influence on their careers, and Bob Dylan, on his Theme Time Radio Hour, offered, “She was a big, good-looking woman and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid. She was a powerful force of nature–a guitar-playing, singing evangelist.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a largely unacknowledged ghost of rock and roll, someone who was elemental in creating the form, but, inexplicably, left behind by history. Despite her enormous popularity as a live performer and recording artist, she died in relative poverty in 1973, and lay in an unmarked grave until private fundraisers purchased a headstone in 2009.
The United States Postal Service issued a Sister Rosetta Tharpe postage stamp in 1998, and in 2003, recording artists, such as Joan Osborne, Odetta, and Maria Muldaur, among others, recorded the album Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe may have been an intimidating presence, with her pre-Jimi Hendrix no-holds-barred approach to electric guitar mayhem, but she could convince you that Heaven is gonna be alright because there was always a good rockin’ at midnight.
I’m a believer!!!
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.