SISTER ROSETTA THARPE – born March 20, 1915 was an ground breaking female musician dubbed “the godmother of rock n’ roll. John pays tribute with songs by other females from Sister Tharpe’s era of gospel-swing on Crosscurrents, Monday March 20th at 8:00 AM. Listen live at www.KRNN.org, 102.7fm, or 103.1fm.
Her performances developed a following in more secular circles. In 1938 she made her first recording for Decca. After a brief stint with Cab Calloway as singer and guitarist, she joined band leader Lucky Millinder in 1941 to perform at the Savoy Ballroom. An interviewer noted that she was criticized by some Harlem ministers for putting too much motion as well as emotion into her singing. She denied this.
In later years she continued to appear before religious groups and also in nightclubs, including Cafe Society Downtown. In 1959 she was a leading performer in a folk‐song concert at Town Hall, and had also appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and in performances at Alice Tully Hall.
The “godmother of rock n’ roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas to cotton pickers. Prompted to do so by her mother, Tharpe began to play the guitar at the age of four and was dubbed a child prodigy. She began to travel with her mother around Arkansas two years later.
By the mid 1920’s Tharpe and her mother had settled in Chicago. It was here where Tharpe began to create her own unique musical style: a blend of Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel music. Her music consistently and openly explored themes of sexuality.
Seeing a female guitarist and musician at the time was rare, especially one who sang both secular and religious music. Tharpe was persistent, however, landing herself a gig at the Cotton Club Revue in New York City in 1938, before recording her first singles. Tharpe performed with the likes of Duke Ellington, and Muddy Waters, remaining motivated even amidst racist policies at many venues that forced Tharpe to sleep in buses outside.
While Tharpe has historically been overlooked in rock ‘n’ roll history, she has, in recent years, been rightfully celebrated as a woman who broke every norm, and has a central place in the Turning the Tables canon. She was a gospel singer at heart who became a celebrity by forging a new path musically, a queer woman who toured with her partner and a fearless black artist who was in love with crafting a new sound. Through her unforgettable voice and gospel swing crossover style, Tharpe influenced a generation of musicians including Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and countless others. Her career, which spanned four decades, was grounded in both her confidence and the characteristic rawness she brought to her performances night after night. She was, and is, an unmatched artist.
SOURCE: New York Times; Philadelphia Citizen; N.P.R.