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  • Writer's pictureVivienne Boucherat


Have you heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

Dubbed the ‘Original Soul Sister’ and the ‘Godmother of Rock & Roll’ it is hard to believe she is not a household name - she influenced and inspired so many icons - Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and the late Jeff Beck to name but a few! Alongside this she pioneered the use of distortion on her electric guitar, opening the door to electric guitar blues! Phew!

Here is a brief introduction to someone we should all have heard of:

Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas on 20th March 1915, she was a musical child prodigy, a guitarist, pianist and singer. Her mother, Katie Bell, was a devout Christian evangelist, who left her husband to ‘spread the word’ in Chicago and took six-year-old Rosetta with her. Rosetta soon became a nationwide celebrity in church circles.

1934 heralded Rosetta’s first of three marriages. She married Thomas Thorpe and kept an adaptation of that name for the rest of her life. For various reasons the marriage ended four years later and she moved to New York, taking her mother with her.

In New York, Rosetta found employment at the infamous Cotton Club and began attracting a huge secular audience and was pursued by bands and record labels alike. She worked with Lucky Millinder’s jazz Orchestra and signed with Decca. By the age of 25 she was rated as one of the finest musicians of the day.

Photo by: Charles Peterson

The secular songs, especially ‘Tall skinny Papa’ lost her a lot of her faithful church followers, but when she started releasing gospel songs with her own rock & roll twist – they returned.

She toured America from the mid 1930’s and all through the 1940’s. Despite being a huge star, she suffered the well documented and lamentable segregation issues of the time.

She defied convention by inviting white acts onto sections of her tour (The Jordanaires). She was the sweetheart of segregated African American soldiers during World War 2 and she toured the gospel circuit with Marie Knight for years – 2 women headliners! How’s all that for girl power?

In 1951, she got married for the third time - it was a gigantic publicity event in Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Tickets to the wedding - followed by a full-on music gig, were sold to approximately 25,000 fans! The music rights to the recording were held by Decca!!

After this her star waned a little but soon rose again when jazz trombonist, Chris Barber, invited her to tour with him around the UK in 1957 – she stole the show. British audiences witnessed the live sight and sound of authentic gospel, soul and rock & roll for the first time.

In 1964 she toured Europe with Blues and Gospel Caravan alongside stars like Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee. This tour included a televised performance on a railway platform in Manchester. You can find footage of this performance online along with her last known recording on film - in Denmark in 1970.

In 1968, her mother died. She had been the only constant presence in Rosetta’s life.

In 1970 Rosetta had to have a leg amputated due to diabetic complications. On 9th October 1973 she died in Philadelphia as the result of a stroke.

Her funeral was a very low-key affair but around 35 years later, in 2008, it seems her legacy was finally honoured when the Governor of Pennsylvania declared that “11th January would henceforth be known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.”

I am sad to say I have only very recently become aware of this amazing woman but really wanted to shine a light on her. It’s always good to find another heroine!

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