Queer musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe is FINALLY getting her place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and you know what?
IT’S ABOUT BLOODY TIME!
Rosetta was a singer/songwriter who rose to fame in the '30s and '40s by fusing gospel with seriously funky rhythms, helping give birth to rock and roll. Sadly, her contribution often gets forgotten by mainstream audiences. Some critics argue this is due to her music not being solely rock & roll as it fused gospel with it… and totally not because she was a black woman…
But I would argue that there is tons of irrefutable evidence that Rosetta’s pioneering sound left its mark on future groundbreaking musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others. So let’s give the nice lady her due and discover how Rosetta came to forge rock & roll.
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS ROSETTA.
Rosetta was born in 1915 Arkansas, close to the Mississippi. She was singing gospel music AND learning to play the guitar by the age of four (basically a born over-achiever). Realizing her daughter had a heck of a talent, Rosetta’s mother took her to Chicago to join the evangelical Church of God in Christ (a church famed for its musicians) when she was six years old. Rosetta was in heaven! Here she could play music everyday, honing her skills as a singer and experimenting with electric guitars. It was this electric experimentation that led to Rosetta developing distortion techniques that gave birth to blues rock.
ROSETTA BIRTHS ROCK & ROLL
When Rosetta was 23, she left the church behind to break out into showbiz and was quickly signed up by Decca Records, where she recorded her ridiculously unique blend of gospel, sensuality, and infectiously melodic guitar. It was this uniqueness that made Rosetta into one of the '30s and '40s most popular club acts. Her gospel sound in a seedy cabaret setting was scandalous at the time. This meant that Rosetta was snubbed by religious circles who thought her music evil and her mere act of playing guitar a sin.
ROSETTA DIDN’T CARE. In fact, she didn’t care so much that in 1944, she recorded what many music aficionados now believe to be the first rock and roll song. "Strange Things Happening Everyday" charted at number 2 in the R&B Chart (then known as the Race Chart), and you can hear how their guitar and piano arrangement influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and basically anyone who picked up a guitar after her.
THE LATER YEARS AND LADY LOVE
In the late '40s, Rosetta met fellow gospel singer and rumored lover Marie Knight. The ladies took their act on tour… which again proved to be controversial (so nothing new for Rosetta…). Seeing two women touring alone with no men (!) was unheard of, no matter how ideal it sounds.
Sadly this wonderful partnership didn’t last. During one gig, poor Marie’s mother and two small children were killed in a house fire. Marie was devastated and moved away from Rosetta, and Rosetta started focusing on her solo music.
After she and Marie parted ways, Rosetta hatched an amazing plan. She’d have a public wedding (sadly to an arsehole of a bloke, which we will get to) and a concert afterwards, obvs charging tickets for the whole. It all took place in the Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. and it was packed to the gills! For those who couldn’t make the day, a recording was released pretty much immediately.
Though the publicity was huge, it didn’t last for long. Mainly because Rosetta’s new husband Russel Morrison terribly mismanaged her career. Oh yeah, and he was also a cheating bellend. Nice one, Russ.
ROSETTA MOVES THE FUCK ON
By this time, Rosetta was due a revamp. Blues legend Muddy Waters did an incredible tour with Rosetta in the mid 1960s, and they performed a gig in Manchester at a disused railway station. The concert could have been a disaster though, as the heavens opened when it was meant to start. Rosetta was not having that though. She changed her opening number to "Didn’t It Rain?" arriving on the platform by horse and carriage while it was pissing down and plugging her guitar in with no worries about it electrocuting her live onstage.
After an entrance like that, Rosetta obviously blew everyone away.
Not only that, but she influenced a whole new heap of musicians who’d been in attendance, including Morrissey, a couple members of Joy Division, and some of the Buzzcocks… so you know, barely anyone important… The groundbreaking gig was broadcast on UK TV and was cited by critics as a significant cultural event.
You can view her incredible performance below. Try watching this without bouncing around in your seat. Her energy is just incredible! She plays an amazing guitar solo, then quips with the audience… Pretty good for a woman, ain’t it? UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE MILLENIUM!
In the early 1970s, Rosetta had a stroke that stopped her from performing, and a few years later she had her leg amputated because of issues with diabetes. Rosetta never really recovered from this, and she passed away in 1973 after suffering another stroke at the age of 58. She was just about to get back in the recording studio.
Heartbreakingly, Rosetta was buried without a gravestone because her family just couldn’t afford one, and her funeral was sparsely attended. Rosetta remained an obscure figure until the turn of the century, when her music was rediscovered.
In 2007, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of fame and a concert was held in 2007 to raise money to get Rosetta a gravestone.
In 2008, January 11th was declared "Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day" by the Governor of Pennsylvania; she was finally getting recognition she so richly deserved. Then, on December 27th, 2017, Rosetta was announced as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, in the category ofEarly Influencer. It’s 40+ years late, but they got there eventually, and we wouldn’t have rock and blues without this amazing woman.
Rosetta had the most incredible voice. It’s hard describing it if you’ve not heard her (and seriously, we encourage you to seek her out if you haven’t), but her voice is just so joyful and amazingly rich and sumptuous, AND it has magical healing powers. No joke! What I love about her songs are the underlying messages of hope and cheer. She’s telling us, "Yeah, stuff is difficult and a bit shit, but we are gonna carry on anyway and make the fucking best of it!’" So she’s my go-to for days I need a good kick up the arse.
This was interesting, where can I find out more? There’s a wonderful documentary on Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Mick Csaky on YouTube, and we highly recommend it.
this post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.