When people generally think about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, immediate thoughts go to Elvis’s shaky legs, Chuck Berry’s tumbling and electrifying riffs, or Little Richard’s clunky piano backbeats. However, none of this would have been possible without the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Elvis studied her instrumentation carefully. She was the first to put 14 year old Little Richard Penniman onstage. Bob Dylan lauded her on his radio show. Johnny Cash called her his biggest inspiration. Chuck Berry called his work an impersonation of her.
Though she was technically a gospel singer, she invented rock ‘n’ roll as we know it (because it didn’t exist yet).
In an age where a woman (not to mention a queer black woman), twanging away on guitar was a rarity, this Arkansas queen was swaying her hips and shredding through complicated genre-bending riffs before Elvis had even picked up an instrument. In 1938, Sister Rosetta Tharpe skyrocketed through the eyes of the American public with her record “Rock Me” which combined evangelical beliefs with secular themes — howling praises to the Lord as if she were singing a love song. While this upset a large part of the evangelical community, she was more than happy to defy conventions and soldier on into the depths of what her music could give her. As she continued to bridge the worlds of religious music with the worldly, she approached her distinct genre-bending with utter self-assurance — successfully marrying high-energy gospel with unparalleled blues riffs and a pulsating swing sound. Much to the pleasure of her burgeoning fanbase, her distinctive style was characterized by her booming steel guitar and her melodic wailings – leaving audience members unabashedly stunned by her musical prowess and animated stage presence.
“Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”
Sister Rosetta was an all purpose musician — charming the audience with her eloquent piano ballads, unconventional picking style, and a certain growl in her voice. In addition to her powerhouse stage presence, she was entirely sure of herself; only adding to the allure of her performance.
By 1945, her recording “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, one of the inklings of rock ‘n’ roll, was credited as the first gospel song to cross over to Billboard’s “race” charts (later known as the R&B charts), and reach #2 nationally.
By the time “Strange Things Happening Every Day” reached its five-year anniversary, Sister Rosetta was selling out arenas; even holding her third wedding filled with a massive fireworks display and a live performance at Griffith Stadium to an excited audience of twenty-five thousand who paid to see the spectacle. Certainly, she was no stranger to being extra.
Only up until recently did this tuneful legend get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite her gigantic following and critical acclaim from music’s top players. While Sister Rosetta Tharpe was not an undiscovered act but a shining star, she was somehow plucked from the seams of what people remember as rock history. It is crucial to acknowledge the mastery of pillars like her, especially PoC and WoC, who charted the course of the major musical movements we typically associate with whingeing white men with too much self-loathing or self-lauding. It is an absolute misdeed to think that she was forgotten from musical history due to her blackness, her queerness, or her womanhood.
Without her early influence, all of these contenders would have had entirely different careers. Before any of the men that followed her, she was flaunting that typical rockstar attitude before any of us knew what that was.
Words: Libby Hsieh