Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. A pioneer of mid-20th-century music, she attained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll. She was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, later being referred to as "the original soul sister" and "the godmother of rock and roll". She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; in particular a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1963 with a stop in Manchester is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
Willing to cross the line between sacred and secular by performing her music of "light" in the "darkness" of nightclubs and concert halls with big bands behind her, Tharpe pushed spiritual music into the mainstream and helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel, beginning with her 1939 hit "This Train". Her unique music left a lasting mark on more conventional gospel artists, such as Ira Tucker, Sr., of the Dixie Hummingbirds. While she offended some conservative churchgoers with her forays into the pop world, she never left gospel music.
Tharpe's 1944 release "Down by the Riverside" was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004, which noted that it "captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers" and cited her influence on "many gospel, jazz, and rock artists". ("Down by the Riverside" was recorded by Tharpe on December 2, 1948, in New York City, and issued as Decca single 48106.) Her 1945 hit "Strange Things Happening Every Day", recorded in late 1944, featured Tharpe's vocals and electric guitar, with Sammy Price (piano), bass and drums. It was the first gospel record to cross over, hitting no. 2 on the Billboard "race records" chart, the term then used for what later became the R&B chart, in April 1945. The recording has been cited as precursor of rock and roll.
Last Updated: December 13, 2017