When you ask most people to name some of the pioneers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, there are a series of names that you will commonly hear; Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are all likely to make an appearance. Less well known is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who predates many of those. She was born in 1915 as Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Her parents were singers, and her mother was also a preacher, who encouraged the young Rosetta to sing in church at the age of four, and by the age of six, she was performing with her mother on evangelical tours. She moved to Chicago with her mother, and performed regularly there. She married a preacher called Thomas Thorpe at the age of 19, and although the marriage as short-lived, she retained the name Sister Rosetta Tharpe, based on her husband’s surname, as her stage name for the rest of her performing life.
At the age of 23 in 1938, Rosetta recorded for the first time, with Decca releasing Rock Me, That’s All, My Man and I and The Lonesome Road.
The gospel songs were hits, and Rosetta was soon performing with Cab Calloway at the Harlem Cotton Club, bringing her gospel music to a secular audience. Playing guitar and performing at dancing establishments was not universally popular among the religious music establishment, but Rosetta persevered, and during World War II recorded for the US troops overseas. Her success continued after the war, and she performed with Marie Knight, with the two singers touring together. In 1957, Rosetta embarked on a month long UK tour, and in 1964 toured Europe with Muddy Waters and others, including recording a concert for Granada Television in Manchester. Here she is performing at the disused Wilbraham Road Station in Whalley Range, Manchester.
Tharpe suffered a stroke in 1970, and died in 1973.
It is remarkable how much Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music, with her playing guitar and singing, sounds like rock & roll, even back in the 1930s and 1940s, before the genre had been “invented”. She may be missing from many of the histories of rock music, but listening to recordings of her now, you can see why she is sometimes now called the Godmother of Rock & Roll.