Women in History: Sister Rosetta Tharpe


You ready for this awesome lady?


Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an American artist known as “the Godmother of rock and roll.” Although she had a distinctive voice, unique spiritual lyrics, and an unconventional style that attracted fans, it was still the 1930s, meaning female guitarists are rare.


Tharpe hit it big in 1938 with a record called “Rock Me,” and she was only 23 at the time. She became an overnight sensation, showcasing her guitar style and melodic blues mixed with traditional gospel music, and one of the first commercially successful gospel artists. Big name rock-and-roll singers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were influenced by her. She was also the first women to put a 14-year-old boy on stage, a boy who later became artist Little Richard.

Once she began performing at clubs, Tharpe started stirring up more controversies by performing gospel style music in a secular nightclub alongside other blues and jazz musicians, along with being a religious woman playing a guitar in such settings. Because of this, she fell out with some of the gospel community.


As a young black woman working in a heavily male-dominated industry in the ‘40s, Tharpe wasn't shy about rattling cages. She collaborated with big-name artists of the time, like Duke Ellington, and even teamed up with an all-white male gospel group, the Jordanaires, performing for mixed audiences. Despite her fame, racism in the mid-1940s was still rampant. And yet, she still became a celebrity and even a legend amongst black soldiers fighting in World War II.

By the time she was 30, Tharpe had survived two marriages and several relationships with both women and men. Although she was open about her sexuality within the industry, she kept this secret from the public. But she eventually met her partner, Marie Knight, when they teamed up with their hit "Up Above My Head." The duo began touring and started taking control of their own business decisions, performing as two queer black women in a relationship in the late 1940s. Extreme.



The duo and partnership split in 1950. The following year, Tharpe married her manager, Russell Morrison and 25,000 fans paid to attend her on-stage wedding at Griffith Stadium! She was the hottest act on stage with a guitar. Johnny Cash called her his favorite singer and biggest inspiration.


But then, by the early sixties, the musical revolution Tharpe inspired had forgotten her. She went on to Europe and played electric guitar for the new generation of young blues fans. She passed away in 1973 from a stroke.


While Tharpe has long been overlooked in music history, she has recently been celebrated as a woman who broke every norm. She was a gospel singer who became a celebrity by trailing a new musical path. She was a queer woman who toured and performed with her partner. She was a fearless black artist who was in love with crafting a new sound. And I, for one, am so thankful for it.




Check in tomorrow for another awesome woman!