Today I will be examining a musical artist who some call the Godmother of Rock & Roll (as well as the original soul sister). Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel musician who gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, pioneered the genre of rock by infusing electric guitars and rhythms into Black pentecostal gospel. While Tharpe is widely unknown in 2021, without Tharpe’s influences, the world might be a different place. We might not even have rock and roll if it were not for Tharpe.
I myself confess ignorance on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music. So, in the spirit of the I Listen to series, as well as the spirit of Black History Month, I’ve decided to explore the Godmother of rock and her music. Join me, and let’s explore Tharpe’s legacy together.
Most of Sister Loretta Tharpe’s songs were rearranged and reworked gospel standards. The music for Jericho for instance was first copyrighted in 1865 under the title “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho.” Previous versions of Jericho usually boast an up-tempo and a jazzy beat. Sister Loretta Tharpe keeps the tempo and the beat. In fact, she does not change much to the traditions of Jericho. But Tharpe does add her signature distorted electric guitar to the song. While the guitar does not feel like the “star” of the song, it provides an interesting texture to the song, especially with said guitar played against a jazz piano. Rock and roll were already in full swing by the time Jericho was recorded, but Jericho would certainly fit into any given sock hop or Little Richard concert.
Strange Things Happening Every Day (1944)
Strange Things Happening Every Day was the first gospel song to crossover into what was then called the Billboard “race” charts. The song is a jubilant and celebratory song, and with good reason! It was Rock and Roll! The first sound we hear, Tharpe’s electric guitar, says it all. Welcome to the future of music. Once more, Tharpe even includes a guitar solo! After the third chorus, Tharpe lets her signature Gibson fly for about thirty seconds, before dumping into the fourth verse. That, right there, that’s one of the most important moments in rock and roll history!
Fun fact, Strange Things Happening Every Day topped the Billboard charts on April 30th, 1945. The very same day that Hitler killed himself. Rock and Roll came to the masses the same day the world rid itself of arguably the worst human who ever lived. Now that was a day to celebrate!
That’s All (1938)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame in 2018. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes accepted on behalf of the deceased Tharpe. Howard also performed the song “That’s All.” A gospel number, with the thesis of “without religion, you have nothing,” that’s all showcases Tharpe’s Gibson SG guitar in a way that, well, just gives me chills.
That’s All is rock and roll in all its glory. Loud, distorted guitars, an extended solo, and a beat that just won’t quit. And yet, That’s All was recorded 10 years before Little Richard came on the scene. 10 years before what most music historians believe to be the birth of rock. That’s All might not have done as well as the latter Strange Things Happening Every Day, but That’s All pioneered the rock and roll genre and laid the foundation for every other rock and roll song.
Shout, Sister Shout (1941)
Shout, Sister Shout is not a rock song. Still, it’s an important song to listen to when examining Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music. Shout, Sister Shout, is essentially Tharpe’s theme song. Her message and thesis, wrapped in a melody. The chorus, “Shout, sister shout, Hallelujah, Tell the whole world what it’s all about” shows Tharpe’s message – Tharpe wanted to spread the gospel. With that said, the up-tempo beat and big band sound says it’s not just the message, but the music. Tharpe not only wanted to spread the word of the Lord, but she also wanted to do so in an exciting way. She wanted to show the world that church could be fun. Tharpe even includes the line “But there ain’t no reason why a man can’t swing.” In a spiritual, no less!
Yes, Rosetta Tharpe was the godmother of rock. But looking at the message of Shout, Sister Shout, we must wonder if her pairing of contemporary (and danceable) music to spiritual lyrics inspired the Jesus People of the 1970s and the Christian Rock of the 1980s and 1990s.
Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air (1947)
The main instrument of “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air,” a piano, reminds us of Jerry Lee Lewis a full ten years later. Granted, this is no coincidence, as Lewis was inspired heavily by Tharpe. Lewis even played one of Tharpe’s songs for his audition with Sun Records. The rockabilly piano stylings of “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air” makes us want to dance. The guitar solo makes us want to do the twist. The lyrics, just make us want to scream and shout and let it all out. Perhaps this is why Elvis himself chose to open his comeback performance with a cover of Tharpe’s song.
Rock Me (1938)
Songs about rock and roll itself have become a staple of the genre. Everything from Roll Over Beethoven to God Gave Rock and Roll to You. Led Zeppelin, David Essex, KISS, AC/DC, Chuck Berry, Def Leppard, The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Elvis Prestley, and countless others have recorded songs about the genre. And somehow, songs about rock never get old. Well, all those songs owe their existence to the song “Rock Me.”
To be fair, “Rock Me” is not about rock and roll. It’s about “rocking in a cradle.” “Rock Me” is a metaphor for the safety of the cradle. But Rock me still rocks. Rock Me starts with one of Tharpe’s standard guitar intros. The intro draws us in and makes us want to hear more. As we arrive at the main body of the song, we hear a slowish boogie-woogie style. But again, that intro. It sells us on the song and it sells us on the genre of rock & roll.
Truly, Tharpe was the Godmother of Rock & Roll
Little Richard listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe when he was a young child. Later on, it would be Tharpe who gave Little Richard his big break, letting him open for her. Johnny Cash called Tharpe his favorite singer and covered several of her songs. I’ve already stated her influence on artists such as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Godmother of Rock & Roll inspired the likes of Muddy Waters, the Grateful Dead, Nina Simone, Van Morrison and so many more. Bonnie Raitt even states Tharpe “blazed a trail for the rest of us women guitarists.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe died of a stroke in 1972 at the age of 58. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was not inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame until 2018, despite her vast influence, and the possible invention of the genre. And while we do hear the influence of her music now, her name isn’t as famous as it once was. I suppose that’s why I chose to write about her today. We owe Sister Rosetta Tharpe a debt of gratitude. We owe it to Tharpe and ourselves, to learn about her, and her music. She paved the way for a diverse collection of musicians, while her influence has lasted over 90 years.
We salute you, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Thank you for all you did. You rocked us 90 years ago and you continue to rock us today!