AP History: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
By Sound Check
April 25, 2011
The origins of rock and roll are hazy at best. Seemingly every year someone steps up with a new claimant to the title “first rock and roll record.” The fact is that musical genres are more convergent phenomena than inventions, though it’s hard to resist the urge to point at one recording and declare: “This is where it began!” (Just look at how easy it is to spark a heated argument about the origin of punk rock…aaaaaaand GO.). Nevertheless, in a genre infamous for it’s “boy’s club” attitude, the guitar slinging gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an instrumental factor in rock’s creation.
Words by Nathan Leigh
Getting her start as a guitar playing child prodigy, Tharpe began performing at age 4, accompanying her mother, Church of God in Christ evangelist Katie Bell Nubin. After the family moved from Arkansas to Chicago in the late 1920’s the young Rosetta was exposed to blues and jazz, and began integrating elements of both into her gospel performances. Unlike other gospel performers of the time, Rosetta bent notes when she sang and picked her guitar, playing riffs and melodies rather than simply strumming chords.
At the advice of her mother and Chicago area promoters, Rosetta moved to New York in the early 1930’s. She married minister Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934. Although their marriage was short lived, Rosetta kept the name (respelling it as Tharpe for her stage name), and remained in New York performing regularly. She signed a contract with Decca Records in 1938 and became a huge success in both secular and religious markets, ultimately becoming only one of 2 African Americans to record V-Records (records made for the troops serving in WWII with the intent of boosting morale). She performed primarily hymns and gospel songs but backed with popular jazz orchestras.
Throughout the 40’s, Tharpe began performing with smaller ensembles, with the focus increasingly on her innovative guitar style. In 1944 she recorded the standout song Strange Things Happening Every Day with boogie woogie pianist Sammy Price. The cut was the first gospel song to make Billboard’s “race records” Top Ten, and has become one of the many records claimed as the “first rock and roll record.” Although the message is certainly more religious than anything Chuck Berry would ever have recorded, the guitar part and pounding bass line wouldn’t have been out of place on any early rock and roll single.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Tharpe’s star began to decline, as she struggled to maintain the delicate balance she had previously struck between secular and gospel music. Nevertheless she continued recording and performing steadily up until her stroke in 1970, frequently touring Europe (performances from her European tours form the basis of the fantastic live album “Sing Sister Sing,” in which she performs her classic songs accompanied only by her trademark Les Paul SG.).
Sister Rosetta died soon after the stroke in 1973, leaving behind an enormous legacy. In a musical landscape dominated by white male guitarists, she wasn’t just one of the greatest black women to play the instrument. She was one of the best, period.