Far too many people credit Elvis Presley with “inventing” Rock n’ Roll. Now, we can talk about the merits of his music (I’m not a fan, personally), but if you still think this is true, then you really don’t know Rock n’ Roll, and you perhaps need a course in how, just like with everything, white people stole music from black people.
But it’s not that simple, see, because people who think they do know will then point to Chuck Berry. I mean… better, but you still need to make your way back. You see, it actually wasn’t a man who invented Rock n’ Roll at all. Because before Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis, there was…
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
As far as I and many others are concerned, the moment the Blues transformed into Rock was the moment this woman, a gospel singer, picked up the guitar.
Never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
Well… let me (and the Daily Beast) introduce you…
Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was a singer, preacher, and mandolin player for the Church of God In Christ (COGIC) who encouraged little Rosetta to play and sing for services. A clear prodigy, it was through her association with COGIC that Rosetta would evolve into one of the most amazing gospel performers of her time. It was a church that believed in musical expression and was progressive in its view of gender roles within the church, encouraging women ministers and musicians. After moving to Chicago, little Rosetta and her mother became fixtures within the city’s gospel music scene.
At 19 years old, she would marry a minister named Thomas A. Thorpe in 1934, but the union would be short-lived. Though they divorced, Rosetta would keep his last name as her stage name—slightly altering “Thorpe” to “Tharpe.”
Upon signing with Decca Records, Tharpe issued singles that are instant smashes. Her versions of Thomas Dorsey tunes like “This Train” made her a household name—in particular, her reworked version of “Hide Me In Thy Bosom” (retitled “This Train”) was a breakthrough for her as a recording artist. Backed by Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra, the song raised her visibility with secular and white audiences and set the stage for a remarkable run that saw her perform at Carnegie Hall (as part of John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” showcase) and record music with Cab Calloway and the Jordanaires. She also made recordings for U.S. troops stationed overseas; Tharpe was one of only two black gospel artists included on these “V Discs”—along with the Dixie Hummingbirds. But it was her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” that proved a major leap forward for both her career and gospel music; it was the first gospel hit on the Billboard R&B charts, peaking at #2.
Her legacy is impeccable, and her playing is… well… see for yourself! This is a video that went viral in 2016, of Sister Rosetta playing live for an audience in Manchester, England in 1964. You can see from the puddles that it had just rained, so she chose to play the gospel song “Didn’t it Rain”…
Her first solo starts at 1:02 and ends at 1:16. Don’t miss her amazing voice, as well, before you move on to the second solo, which starts at 2:30 and ends at 2:56.
Yes I know, I know, it’s a religious song about the Flood, but who cares?!? The song is good, the guitar playing is amazing… and you really need to go and find out more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe.