Sister Rosetta Tharpe Is The Rock & Roll Pioneer Everyone Should Know About

by F Yeah History

Queer musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe is FINALLY getting her place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and you know what?


Sister Rosetta Tharpe b56a4This lady is a damn queen! via Wikipedia

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…

gum 1b165no comment via giphy
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.


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.

59ca9f89aabe9aacad9d9b4819158048 classical music album covers 689cbRosetta doing her thing! 


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.

304de91e 0edf 4cbb b503 75b2a0098432 e8023YOU CAN SAY THAT AGAIN! via giphy


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.

rosetta and marie 31f23Rosetta and Marie in happier times via Google Images

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.

boo 752bbFucking Russ via giphy


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. 

rosetta manchester e1514975617745 77658Rossetta, aged 47, giving no fucks about deadly electrics via Google

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.

e246f1f3 590c 466f a93b bec80d898980 20007via giphy

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.

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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. 

tharpe300 b98800aa8d0f64276bfa4e9461f3f2865e5459db s300 c85 63794A memorial Rosetta deserved 

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.

wooohoooo bb6d8via giphy

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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