Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Early Blues and Rock Music Pioneer
On one of my many nights exploring the web, mostly via YouTube, I came across a musician who I had never heard of before. On my screen, I was watching a black and white clip of a middle-age woman, jumping up and down, singing and playing a white Gibson SG Custom. It seemed surreal at the time. Until I looked into who this woman was.
It was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born Rosetta Nubin Tharpe in 1915. She was a gospel singer, songwriter and performer who became popular in the 1930s and 1940s. She was a gospel singer at heart, but crossed over into pop music, singing in clubs and concert halls. Sister Rosetta was the first successful gospel singer in the 1930s and recorded four sides with Decca Records with Lucky Millinder and his jazz orchestra backing her.Her records caused much controversy in her core audience of churchgoers. They were shocked by the mix of gospel and popular music. Sister Rosetta was not content to stay within the boundaries of what was acceptable. Her appearances at the Cotton Club and Café Society, performing alongside Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman made her even more popular with fans of big band and swing music. Rock Me was her first hit, which took her gospel style into new territory with up-tempo arrangements. This song, along with This Train, introduced gospel music to an audience who had never heard it before. If they had, it sure was never like this.
Sister Rosetta was one of two gospel artists who recorded V-discs for the troops fighting in World War 2. The song Strange Things Happening Every Day, which was recorded in 1944 with Sammy Price, a boogie woogie pianist, showed that she was a formidable guitarist, combined with her sharp, witty lyrics and vocal style. This song was the first gospel song to make Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade Top Ten. The record has been considered the first rock and roll records. Sister Rosetta continued to make the charts as she toured the country with the Dixie Hummingbirds as her band.
Later on Sister Rosetta performed with Marie Knight. They toured the gospel circuit for a few years and had a hit with Up Above My Head. They recorded several blues songs in the early 1950s which proved to be an unpopular move as their gospel audience turned away from them.Knight crossed over to popular music, while Sister Rosetta stayed with gospel music, but her fans were not listening. She eventually returned to the gospel music, after taking a break to Europe, but found that the fans were not supportive.
In April - May 1964, as bands such as the Rolling Stones were forming and making blues popular again, she toured England as part of the American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan, with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, Ranson Knowling, Little Willie Smith, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Joe and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, performing for mostly audiences of young students. Blues music was not popular in America, and it took the many young British bands to take it up a notch and bring it the masses.
Sister Rosetta suffered a stroke in 1970, and had complications from diabetes.She passed in 1973 after another stroke.
An interest in her work led to many television segments and articles, causing resurgence in her popularity.
Musicians such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Aretha Franklin have listed her as an influence for her guitar playing and performance style. Her songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash often talked about her impact on his music. The U.S. Postal Service issued a Rosetta Tharpe postage stamp in 1998 and in 2003, the album Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe was released, with versions of Tharpe’s songs performed by female artists including Maria Muldaur, Odetta, and Marcia Ball. The Noisette’s, a band from England, recently recorded a tribute, called Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit.)
I would imagine that many of the young musicians of today have no clue that the musicians they admire were influenced by a gospel singer. Nor are they probably aware that Sister Rosetta was an early pioneer of rock music, and helped bring blues music back into popularity.
I would also add that the Gibson SG Custom she uses on these videos is one of the best looking guitars ever made. I wonder where this guitar is today.