Sister Rosetta Tharpe: May You Never Be Forgotten

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe making her grand entrance before performing “Didn’t It Rain” in Manchester, England, in 1964.

Spring is officially sprung, and my fellow journalist/music critic,Steve Hochman, reminded me that March 20 would have marked the centennial of the late Sister Rosetta Tharpe (b. 1915–1973). Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, her parents were cotton pickers by day. Her mother was a singer, mandolin player, and an evangelist preacher, who encouraged her daughter to sing and play the guitar alongside her in church during sermons from a young age. Together, they toured America’s Bible Belt as part of a traveling evangelical troupe.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe popularized gospel music during the 1930s and ’40s in a way that had never been done before. She took it out of the church and into theaters, clubs, and concert halls, singing her electrifying brand of gospel, peppered with impeccable rock, blues, and R&B guitar playing. At the age of 23, she recorded four smash hits for Decca Records, backed by Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra: “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “My Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road.” Her music preached to both the converted and non-converts as she began exploring secular themes in her music with hits like “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa,” launching her career to the the international stage.

<!-- missing image -->I discovered her work in 1980 on a LP reissue of the original Gospel Train rpm released in 1956 by Mercury Records, which included sides she had cut in 1946–1947. Some of my favorite tracks were: “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend.” Her 1944 breakout hit, “Down By the Riverside,” was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry, lauded for her signature vocal style and guitar playing, which influenced many gospel, rock, blues, and jazz artists.

Sister Rosetta’s infectious singing and electric guitar playing inspired the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard at a time when African-American female guitar players were almost unheard of. Check out the clip below, and you’ll hear her influence on Chuck Berry’s famous guitar style. The resemblance and her lasting impact throughout music history is unmistakable.

Here she is in action, performing “Up Above My Head.” Can I get a witness?

A 2011 BBC documentary on the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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