... the other Black experience

The origins of rock and roll are hazy at best. Seemingly every year someone steps up with a new claimant to the title “first rock and roll record.” The fact is that musical genres are more convergent phenomena than inventions, though it's hard to resist the urge to point at one recording and declare: “This is where it began!” (Just look at how easy it is to spark a heated argument about the origin of punk rock...aaaaaaand GO.). Nevertheless, in a genre infamous for it's “boy's club” attitude, the guitar slinging gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an instrumental factor in rock's creation.

Words by Nathan Leigh



Getting her start as a guitar playing child prodigy, Tharpe began performing at age 4, accompanying her mother, Church of God in Christ evangelist Katie Bell Nubin. After the family moved from Arkansas to Chicago in the late 1920's the young Rosetta was exposed to blues and jazz, and began integrating elements of both into her gospel performances. Unlike other gospel performers of the time, Rosetta bent notes when she sang and picked her guitar, playing riffs and melodies rather than simply strumming chords.

At the advice of her mother and Chicago area promoters, Rosetta moved to New York in the early 1930's. She married minister Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934. Although their marriage was short lived, Rosetta kept the name (respelling it as Tharpe for her stage name), and remained in New York performing regularly. She signed a contract with Decca Records in 1938 and became a huge success in both secular and religious markets, ultimately becoming only one of 2 African Americans to record V-Records (records made for the troops serving in WWII with the intent of boosting morale). She performed primarily hymns and gospel songs but backed with popular jazz orchestras.

Throughout the 40's, Tharpe began performing with smaller ensembles, with the focus increasingly on her innovative guitar style. In 1944 she recorded the standout song Strange Things Happening Every Day with boogie woogie pianist Sammy Price. The cut was the first gospel song to make Billboard's “race records” Top Ten, and has become one of the many records claimed as the “first rock and roll record.” Although the message is certainly more religious than anything Chuck Berry would ever have recorded, the guitar part and pounding bass line wouldn't have been out of place on any early rock and roll single.




Throughout the 50's and 60's Tharpe's star began to decline, as she struggled to maintain the delicate balance she had previously struck between secular and gospel music. Nevertheless she continued recording and performing steadily up until her stroke in 1970, frequently touring Europe (performances from her European tours form the basis of the fantastic live album “Sing Sister Sing,” in which she performs her classic songs accompanied only by her trademark Les Paul SG.).

Sister Rosetta died soon after the stroke in 1973, leaving behind an enormous legacy. In a musical landscape dominated by white male guitarists, she wasn't just one of the greatest black women to play the instrument. She was one of the best, period.

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Comment by malachi smith on May 1, 2011 at 1:07pm
I  used to FIEND Rosetta's style, I wanted to play the SG sooo bad, ha  love her
Comment by blu girl on April 30, 2011 at 11:08pm
SOOOO happy to see the great Sister Rosetta on the AP site. The recognition is so well deserved. She was a trailblazer and is one of my all time favorite guitarists. Great article!
Comment by Rosenda on April 29, 2011 at 3:32pm
She's a GREAT guitarist.  She ROCKS.  And way back in the early 40's!!
Comment by benelson on April 28, 2011 at 1:25am
Thank you. It is great to see Sister Tharpe again. She is a true inspiration. A great musician before her time. Boy she can rock that Gibson SG!
BoweryDoll Comment by BoweryDoll on April 28, 2011 at 12:31am
@FashionFreak -- Absolutely, chica. We need to keep teaching the kids -- especially our young little sisters in-search of inspirations, their connection to history and a compass for their present. And I'm forever vigilant about giving my fellow geezers a reality check when ignorance and bigotry rear their nasty heads. Johnny really was a myopic bitter pill, and there are scores more just like him in need of a serious history lesson.
Comment by Fashionfreak on April 27, 2011 at 6:07pm
word bowerybetty there are still ppl out there who refuse to believe that we had anything to do with the origins of rock. it's quite apparent.
Comment by el malito on April 27, 2011 at 3:50pm
Yo, sis was the truth!!!  KILLING IT!!!  Seeing and listening to Sister Rosetta is what I live life for.  I need her and others like her in the world and in life, for realz!!!
BoweryDoll Comment by BoweryDoll on April 25, 2011 at 7:37pm
I can't express enough how happy I am to see Rosetta in an AP spotlight like this.  Seriously, she's one of the godmothers of rock on the same par with Wanda Jackson as an originator and pioneer.  But she's far too often forgotten.  She faced IMMENSE criticism and discrimination for daring to explore rock guitar and mingle it with her beloved gospel music.  A lot of religious Black people turned their backs on her because they thought she was tainting holy music with secular sin, but she just kept on rocking and standing strong.  The YouTube vid for Up Above My Head is one of my faves because I love looking at the tepid expressions of the guys in the choir -- you can just hear them thinking: "It's not fair -- make her stop!!  She plays better than me!"   This reminds me of an argument I had with Johnny Ramone a long time ago in the 80's when I was interviewing Joey for my zine.  He was trying to press the classic buttons of saying punk rock music had no relation to jazz, blues and early rhythm and blues -- which in his narrow right wing head meant no influence of Black musicians.  Long story short, he rolled his eyes and backed down when Joey (bless him) and I laid out a mild family tree of influences from boogie-woogie and blues to rhythm and blues, garage and beyond to where we stood strong that day in our love for punk rock.  And you better believe we praised Sister Rosetta, but also Memphis Minnie (another pioneering sister who dared to pick up a guitar when the boys told her to just sing) and the fabulous Lady Bo and The Duchess who both played the hell out of their guitars as they backed Bo Diddley in the blues/rock/garage stuff he was creating way back when.  Speaking of all those amazing women, I hope there are some inspired, young documentary filmmakers out there who could finally tell the stories of these pioneering sisters.  Sure, I like Wanda Jackson as much as anyone, but it's time for them to get the respect and honor they deserve.  They were rebels and innovators and followed their own visions.  And that is very punk rock.
Comment by Nyx on April 25, 2011 at 7:34pm
This makes me so happy:). I was just outside practicing my guitar & singing "up above my head" to myself & I came in to check my email and saw that you all made a post about Sister. I'm overjoyed:). If anyone gets the chance, check out the biography called 'shout sister shout'. It's a book that changed my life. Sister was a really sweet and colorful character lol.
Comment by Alison Cecile Johns on April 25, 2011 at 7:20pm
if i'm not mistaken, she was one of the first to play that model of Gibson, as well.


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