Early on Elvis was mightily inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe's singing and guitar style, and Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash are others who have tipped their guitars her way. Thanks to local jazz radio station KJazz, NPR, and this documentary, a quick clip in the French film Amélie, and this recent biography, there should be wider knowledge and credit for the woman who is known as the godmother of rock 'n roll. Despite a good deal of campaigning from singers, musicians and others, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has yet to be inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.
She was never afraid to cross boundaries in music or life. As an innovator she mixed religious and secular styles which angered gospel singers in more conservative churches. Her own musical background was firmly rooted in the gospel tradition and she began performing as a young child in Pentecostal Churches in Arkansas. In the 1920s, Tharpe and her mother moved to Chicago, then New York where she sang at the Cotton Club and Café Society. A recording contract gave her more publicity but little satisfaction because she had no control over the musical selections. Wherever she appeared her performances were a sensation because of Tharpe's incisive and flamboyant interpretations. Even though she was the trailblazer for singers who followed in the 1950s, she was overshadowed by the birth of rock 'n roll with all of the groups and individuals who were moving the music further along.
Her personal life was anything but calm with three marriages, some indications of bisexuality, which in today's popular scene is almost de rigueur. In public life she overcame racism, of which there was a good deal, by ignoring it and living and working the way she wanted. At one time she sang in a mixed race group and later had a mixed race back-up group of musicians. Because of the changes in the musical world, an overly generous hand with money, and her own poor health, Rosetta Tharpe died and was buried with little notice. A few years after Gayle F. Wald's biography, writer Bob Merz organized a benefit to pay for a proper memorial in Philadelphia. Wald's biography is carefully and critically researched and raises questions throughout about the lack of acclaim and acknowledgement for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but also about female performers, African American female performers in particular, and demands a look back at others who have not gotten the respect due.
Here are two YouTube samples of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's music. For the first one, "That's All," just fasten your seatbelt because the guitar work alone slams the piece into another realm. Her performance is full of sass, glamour, and shows a great musician doing it her way without any gimmicks, tricks or wardrobe malfunctions. She and the back-up guys are having one great time. For "Precious Memories" take out your handkerchiefs. If you aren't moved by these performances, then get your pulse checked for signs of life: