By Gillian G. Gaar
The question isn’t why Sister Rosetta Tharpe is being inducted as an “early influence” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The question is why it took them so long. Before Sam Cooke, she took sacred music into secular territory. Before Elvis Presley, she brought a sense of rhythm to gospel that some found shocking. Before Chuck Berry, she could play one mean guitar.
Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to Katie Harper. Her first name was variously given as Rosa, Rosie Etta, or Rosabell. What’s not in dispute is that Rosa-Rosie Etta-Rosabell took up the guitar at the age of four, and traveled throughout the south performing with her mother, who was also a musician and a preacher. Her first marriage, in 1934, was to a preacher named Thomas Thorpe; though the marriage ended in 1938, she reworked her former husband’s last name, and became Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
By then, she was living in New York City. She shared the stage of the famed Cotton Club with Cab Calloway and the dancing Nicholas Brothers, and closed out the year with an appearance at John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938. The recording studio also beckoned, and she signed with Decca Records the same year. At her first session, on October 31, 1938, she recorded “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “My Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road.”
“Rock Me” was the kind of song that exemplified the kind of “spirituals to swing” crossover artist that Tharpe would become. It also made her a figure of controversy. To some, spirituals should stay just that; no swinging (especially hip swinging) allowed. And what was such a God-fearing woman doing playing in nightclubs, surrounded by all that drinking and dancing, anyway? And playing a guitar — an electric guitar! — to boot?
Audiences and record buyers didn’t care. Tharpe’s records were immediately popular hits. And when the records from her second session in January 1939 proved to be just as successful, her first four 78s were packaged together in the kind of record set that used to be called an “album”; a rare honor given to an African American performer.
In the 1940s, she worked with Duke Ellington, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. Her upbeat style even aided the war effort; she was asked to record “V-Discs” for American soldiers serving overseas. And by the time WWII came to an end, her records were making regular appearances in Billboard’s “race” chart.
In 1946, she found a singing partner in Madame Marie Knight. They had hits with the lively “Didn’t It Rain” and the equally energetic “Up Above My Head” and hit the road together, contrasting their styles by having Tharpe come out carrying her guitar, and Knight joining her for a few comic numbers on ukulele. They made a good team.
On July 3, 1951, Tharpe married Russell Morrison, who would soon become her manager. She shared her vows with the 20,000 fans who packed themselves into Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The ceremony was followed by a show, with excerpts later released on the record “The Wedding Ceremony of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Russell Morrison.”
When her popularity declined in the 1950s, Tharpe found new audiences overseas in Europe. The recently released vinyl album, “Live in 1960” (on ORG Music), features a previously unreleased concert from this period, and shows the 45-year-old performer as fiery as she was in her youth, rocking her way through “Can’t Sit Down,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Down By the Riverside.” As compelling as ever, she holds the audience firmly in her hand.
In 1964, she helped introduce gospel nd the blues to a new generation of blues enthusiasts in the U.K. when she joined a package tour, “The American Folk, Blues, and Gospel Caravan,” that also featured Muddy Waters, Brownie McGhee, and Otis Spann, among others. A television special was filmed during the tour, “The Blues and Gospel Train,” shot at an abandoned train station in the suburbs of Manchester. You can find the footage on youtube; Tharpe is helped from a horse drawn carriage, is escorted over to join the band, picks up her guitar and powers through “Didn’t It Rain” to the delight of the audience.
She continued working till the end of her days. A stroke in 1970 slowed her down, as did having her leg amputated due to diabetes. But in October 1973, she had a recording session scheduled in Philadelphia — until another stroke finally silenced that vibrant voice on October 9, 1973. There was no money for a tombstone in the city’s Northwood Cemetery. But a memorial concert held on January 11, 2008 in Glenside, Philadelphia, finally raised the funds.
Sister Rosetta’s earned her place in the Rock Hall. After all, she helped lay the foundation. “Blues is just the theatrical name for gospel,” she told writer Val Wilmer in 1960. “And true gospel should be slow, like we start off with ‘Amazing Grace.’ Then you clap your hands a little and that’s ‘jubilee’ or ‘revival”… and then you get a little happier and that’s jazz…and then you make it like rock ‘n’ roll.”