Women’s History Month: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Women’s History Month: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

American gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 - 1973) performs at a Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in the UK, 1964. (Photo by Tony Evans/Getty Images)

Photo by Getty Images

This week for Women’s History Month, we honor “The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in Arkansas in 1915 as a daughter of cotton pickers. With her family’s involvement in their church’s choir, Rosetta naturally began developing her own musical talents and joined a travelling evangelical troupe, singing and playing guitar all over the South at the age of six.

During the mid-1920s, Rosetta moved with her mother to Chicago and the two began performing music at their church along with religious events around the country. Rosetta’s remarkable talent was undeniable and she was soon called a “child prodigy” especially amongst the gospel community. As she became accustomed to Chicago style music, Rosetta started fusing blues and jazz into her own gospel music. In the late ’30s Rosetta and her mother moved to New York where she became the first gospel musician to be recorded by Decca Records.

With her recorded music, Tharpe became a sensation. Her guitar solos, use of heavy distortion, up-beat energy, blues and jazz elements incorporated into her gospel music, and unorthodox sound would become pioneering factors in the rock ‘n’ roll that was approaching soon. Many of the biggest rock acts would consider her a huge influence in their sound including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley.

Later in her life, she was once asked about her music and rock ‘n’ roll and she responded, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever”

While still planning to perform and record music, Sister Rosetta Tharpe passed away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from a stroke on October 9th, 1973. She will always be remembered for pioneering rock ‘n’ roll.

Watch Sister Rosetta Tharpe perform her hit Up Above My Head here:


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