Never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe? How shocking! While most symbols of rock 'n' roll that we all know and love were in diapers or covered in acne, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was rocking the electric guitar and making hits like « That's All » in a new genre, even though nobody was aware of it at the time. Yet somehow, the woman to whom we owe most of our musical culture, has faded into oblivion.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born Rosetta Nubin was a singer, songwriter, musician and mainly a guitarist of the gospel and afro american blues genre. She was born in 1915 and died in 1973, she was still unknown to most people although she played a huge part in the creation of rock 'n' roll. At the age of four, she learned to master the guitar and later on she would sing gospel with her mother at their local church in Arkansas. She was signed by a label at 23 and one of her songs became the first gospel song on the Billboard R'n'B Top 10 charts. Technically, she was considered as a gospel singer because of where and how she first started out and because the genre did not exist yet. Although, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's music is a mix of blues, jazz and gospel ; eventually creating what we know today as rock 'n' roll and the first to do so, convincing specialists in music history that the genre dates back to her.
Her songs were about faith and religion but also love and even sexuality. Her music was often considered shocking because her « religious » music was played in places like nightclubs, which was seen as "scandalous". In that sense, she was revolutionary, rebellious and most importantly earth-shattering.
What's even more impressive is that Tharpe, during a period of racism and segregation, was openly gay and collaborated with several famous musicians of that time such as Duke Ellington and even caucasian musicians. She invented a whole new genre and inspired many aspiring and future musicians mainly from the rock 'n' roll genre like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin. However, to this day, she still has little credit or recognition to her part in the history of music and was only put in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in the beginning of 2018 ! In Johnny Cash's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination speech in 1992, he mentioned Sister Rosetta Tharpe when remembering his heroes and inspirations : « […] there I heard some of my earliest heroes and it was at the home of the blues records shop where I bought my first recording of Sister Rosetta Tharpe […]. earlier songs that I wrote were influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. »
She was known by many and named as an inspiration for many great rockstars who are wery well known today yet somehow, this powerful musician has been somehow erased from the history of music. Unlike some icons of the genre like Elvis Presley for example, who are still very much alive in memory and movies, documentaries made about them. They are seen as legends, symbols, myths. I admit it myself. Each time I feel sad or thrilled, I play my Don't Be Cruel record over and over and until not too long ago I didn't even know who Sister Rosetta Tharpe was nor have I ever came across any of her albums in a record shop.
One may wonder why and how such an inspiring and fabulous woman could be forgotten to such a point, or remembered by only a small number of people. Many in the music industry actually know the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe but she is rarely recognized or acknowledged as a part of music history and especially the rock and roll setting. Despite her influence and power in a period of segreation, men (mostly caucasians) of that time are the ones who dominated and became the icons of the genre, eventually replacing the memory of the openly bisexual black woman who invented rock and roll.