(Originally posted 20th of March, 2011)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Mar. 20, 1915 - Oct. 9, 1973
A legendary and influential gospel-blues pioneer and innovator from the 1930's until her death in 1973, Sister Rosetta Tharpe began performing at a very young age as "Little Rosetta Nubin," and can be credited with being one of a small handful of artists who later provided the blueprint for the entire rock-and-roll genre.
While fans and critics continue to battle over who is the real "King of Rock-and-Roll", documented history makes clear that iconic figures Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard were by their own admission influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. This begs an entire re-assessment of the history of rock-and roll and its legendary foundations. Additionally, Gospel, Motown and R&B artists cite her as an important and influential vocal stylist. It begins to look pretty obvious in hindsight that even Chuck Berry must have been influenced by Tharpe, as there are copious examples of her earlier recorded work from the 40's onward which are reminiscent of what we associate with Chuck Berry, but years before he even signed his first recording contract.
Ostracized by church fundamentalists for her inclinations toward the secular in musical presentation as they perceived it, a decline in public demand for her music amongst these constituents eventually ensued. Later, in the secular world, this decline was precipitated, at least in part, by what that sector of the buying public viewed as a strict adherence to the gospel church style, which had lost favor. Caught in the middle, as it were, Sister Rosetta was overshadowed by the very movement, led by the aforementioned Elvis, Little Richard and others, that she herself helped to create.
"If you look back at the most influential musicians of the 20th century, she's probably in the top 10," says Bob Merz, a writer and publisher based in Pennsylvania. "Here she was right in Philadelphia, and no one even knew about her at all."
"[This] was a young woman in the 1940s who came out of the gospel church playing with that rock and roll style," says biographer Gayle Wald. "If this woman was doing this in the 1940s, then you'd have to go back and re-write the whole story of rock and roll, and rock and roll guitar playing, specifically."
Tharpe was a self-taught guitarist, and she strutted around a stage strumming windmills decades before Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. Her 1944 crossover hit "Strange Things Happening Everyday" was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, and admired by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Bob Dylan, and is often credited as the first Rock and Roll record.
In an interesting and happy turn of events, a series of tours of the UK in the early-mid sixties, featuring Sister Rosetta, Muddy Waters, and other household Blues names, preceded the first wave of the British Invasion. And a very appreciative young British public whole-heartedly embraced her, prompting her to express at her famous 1964 railway performance there, "Oh, I love you so, my English friends, forever and ever until I leave this world…"
We all owe an eternal debt of gratitude to this amazing woman for helping to forge a musical legacy which has become, without exaggeration, the groundwork for every musical form which followed.
Sadly, in an ironic footnote in history repeating a pattern seen with other musical innovators and icons such as Billie Holiday and Robert Johnson, Lady Rosetta's Northwood Cemetery gravesite lacked a proper grave marker for many years. Only very recently, a concert was held to raise funds for this very purpose,* in a late but loving attempt to honor the legacy of this great and important lady…"The Original Soul Sister"… Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
* The beautiful memorial reads: "Rosetta Atkins Tharpe Morrison, March 20 1915-October 9 1973, 'Sister Rosetta' Gospel Music Legend. She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing."
8/19/64 American Blues and Gospel Train appearances available on "The American Folk Blues Festival" DVD available on Amazon UK.
Sister Rosetta Fan Page would like to personally thank Arielle Kitty for her personal help and assistance with this video blog. You're a sweetheart, Kitty! God bless you!!
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