Celebrating Women’s History Month and the life of a monumental figure in the history of Rock and Roll, we will learn about the iconic and irreplaceable Sister Rosetta, who sexed up the gospel and blues she grew up with in the church. Although not a household name, this top billed act enjoyed in a long career that spanned and influenced generations.
If you’ve never heard of her, its understandable. She doesn’t get the usual superstar treatment. But from the age of 4 she was called a musical prodigy. At 6, her guitar playing was billed as a ‘miracle’ as she traveled throughout the US, with her mother in an evangelical Baptist troupe, performing part-sermon part-gospel concert shows and gathering fame along the way. After moving to Chicago in the 20’s, she married an abusive preacher, but fixed herself up with a new stage name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It was at this church she would really start to lead people. She divorced the preacher.
Tharpe began recording with electric guitar. The enhanced impact was incredible. Her cult of magnetism combined with the pulsating swing of her blues guitar was the birth of Rock and Roll. Her songs had a huge influence on Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis. In New York, electrified with big bands behind her in places like The Cotton Club with Cab Calloway, Tharpe pushed spiritual music into the mainstream. Her recordings got pretty heated and the fantastic song ‘Rock Me’ distills the feeling of how she pushed sexual boundaries in the American recording industry with just one chorus. She seemed to lose control of the material she was recording in these years, but her audience grew and that is all that seems to have mattered.
And her flamboyance didn’t stop there. In golden age of Gospel, Rosetta divorced her second husband and went on tour in the U.S. with her lover Marie Knight in the 1940s. They traveled all through the deep South together, for 20 years, playing to white and black audiences, strictly segregated ones. Then she turned her back on Marie and married a third time, in an elaborate ceremony at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. in 1951. Guests paid to attend, and the event, which featured a gospel concert after the vows, was also recorded and issued on vinyl. Despite this effort to create a buzz, her career declined.
In 1964, at the height of the blues resurgence in England, she toured Europe with Muddy Waters as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan. A concert, in the rain, was recorded at an abandoned railway station in Manchester. In the video (on youtube) you get a feeling for the international concert’s lasting impression on young faces seeing extraordinary things done with an electric guitar by this 50 year old Godmother of Rock and Roll.