I hang my head in shame. For decades I have been boasting about my knowledge of all things music, and especially rock music,when suddenly it hits me like a wet fish in the face, I KNOW NOTHING.
Well that might be too harsh but the fact is I had never heard of one of the founders of Rock and Roll before,Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Chuck Berry borrowed her guitar stylings. Little Richard said she was responsible for his career. Elvis was influenced by her. Who was the real Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915, the young prodigy was performing gospel music with her mother at churches and revivals by age six, when the two moved north to Chicago. Tharpe’s singing and guitar style developed with both rural and urban elements, which gave her a broad appeal. In her teens, she married a preacher, who she soon left, heading to New York CIty. There, she played with Duke Ellington and other top musicians. By her twenties, she’d hit her stride; after years working up north with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder, she toured the south with fellow gospel icons the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1945, her jaunty single “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” with its hot guitar solo, was the first gospel single to cross over on the Billboard race charts.
In 1946 Tharpe saw Marie Knight perform at a Mahalia Jackson concert in New York. Tharpe recognized a special talent in Knight. Two weeks later, Tharpe showed up at Knight’s doorstep, inviting her to go on the road. They toured the gospel circuit for a number of years, during which they recorded hits such as “Up Above My Head” and “Gospel Train”. Though dismissed by both artists as gossip, several in the Gospel community speculated that Knight and Tharpe maintained a romantic and sexual relationship.
Tharpe’s relationship with Knight eventually faded, and in 1951 – over two decades before Sly Stone thought to get hitched in Madison Square Garden – Tharpe got married to her third husband in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The concert and promotional stunt drew 25,000, many with gifts.
Tharpe’s career waned over the next decade. In 1964, as the folk revival was cresting, she was booked for the Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in England, and she played a famous gig in an abandoned railroad station that was broadcast nationwide by Granada television. It was a cold and rainy day, but Tharpe got out of a horse-drawn carriage like royalty, strode across the wet platform, picked up her electric guitar, plugged in, and played “Didn’t It Rain,” electrical-shock risk apparently be damned, soloing and singing her heart out in front of a crowd of young people.
Tharpe’s career didn’t get the same bump that male blues musicians did in the late Sixties and Seventies, no doubt in part because of her devotion to religious material. Her last known recording was in 1970, for Danish TV, singing the Thomas Dorsey gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song Elvis Presley had recorded, among many others.
Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970, after which one of her legs was amputated as a result of complications from diabetes.On October 9, 1973, the eve of a scheduled recording session, she died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as a result of another stroke. She was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia.
On April 14 2018, she will be inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame together with Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, and Nina Simone.
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