One of the most influential recording artists of the 20th Century, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915 in a place called Cotton Plant, Arkansas.
Although her name is not well remembered today, her legacy can be heard throughout the music to which we listen. Her gospel recordings of the 1930s and 1940s provided inspiration to many of the more recognizable names in the history of gospel, blues, and rock and roll...people like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley.
Each of these men, were they alive to day to tell you, would say that it was from Rosetta Tharpe that they first heard what would become rock and roll music. Johnny Cash, at his own induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, described her as his favorite singer when he was growing up. Little Richard described her as his greatest influence, and it was the day she called him up on stage to play at one of her sold-out concerts that he realized what he wanted to do with his life. Chuck Berry once said that his whole life was just one long impersonation of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Perhaps she has been overlooked in the world of blues and rock for so long because she was a gospel singer. But give a listen to this song she first recorded in 1938, and you can clearly see where gospel and blues were coming together in the form of a big loud woman with a big loud electric guitar and creating the music that was clearly an early form of what would become rock and roll.
She brought gospel music into the mainstream and was one of the first performers to play gospel music in secular clubs, not just in churches. She was gospel music's first superstar, and her sweeping vocals and shredding guitar style was a powerful force to experience.
Although her own career ebbed a bit in the 1950s, perhaps because she stuck to her gospel music even as those she influenced stepped to the fore in the budding world of rock and roll, a memorable concert appearance in 1964 showed that Sister Rosetta Tharpe had lost none of her power. Booked as part of the Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in England, she arrived at the rain-soaked stage in a horse-drawn carriage, picked up her big white Gibson SG guitar, and launched into her song "Didn't It Rain" in front of the youthful crowd.
"I'm sure there are a lot of young English guys who picked up electric guitars after getting a look at her," Bob Dylan is reported to have said of this memorable concert performance.
In April, 2018, Sister Rosetta Tharpe will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, her work recognized as one of the "Early Influences" of rock and roll. She will join Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Bessie Smith, Howlin Wolf, and others of those early pioneers that helped create the blues and gospel roots that birthed rock and roll music.