When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its Class of 2018 inductees at the end of last year, word that Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been included spread like wildfire. Tharpe’s influence on rock and roll, both as a guitarist and a vocalist, is incontestable. “She would have loved” being inducted, according to her biographer, Gayle Wald. Wald’s biography of Tharpe, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, published by Beacon in 2007, kicked off a decade-long rediscovery of Tharpe’s music and influence, which included a PBS documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll (2013). Tharpe will be formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month, on Saturday, April 14, in Cleveland, Ohio.
As The Godmother of Rock and Roll put it, Tharpe was “Southern-born, Chicago-raised and New York-made.” Tharpe moved to New York City in 1938, and thus she features in Women’s Voices, our permanent multimedia women’s history installation that explores and celebrates the lives of women in New York City history. Visitors to our 4th floor can read a short biography of Tharpe, see photos of her in action, and — most importantly — hear her one-of-a-kind voice as she performs “Amazing Grace.” Women’s Voices also connects Tharpe to other women throughout history whose lives were shaped by faith, music, performance, and migration.
As her biography in Women’s Voices describes it, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who blurred the boundaries between sacred and secular music. She was gospel music’s first recording star, and later performed with jazz greats, big bands and rhythm sections, scandalizing her religious fans. She is considered one of the originators of R&B and was nicknamed the “godmother of rock and roll.” Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to parents who were cotton pickers and musicians, Rosetta was a musical prodigy, and was taken on tour by her mother, a singer and preacher for the Baptist Church of God in Christ, from the age of four. By six she was a regular performer in evangelical performances–part sermon, part concert–across the south. She and her mother moved to Chicago in the mid-1920s, where Rosetta married and adopted her husband’s surname as her stage name (which stuck for longer than the marriage.) In 1938, she left for New York, where she performed at the Cotton Club, among other high-profile secular venues, shocking her more religious fans. Far more people, however, found her rhythm, inventiveness, and sheer style irresistible.”
Today, Tharpe is acknowledged as a trailblazer on many fronts. Her songs reshaped American music: Elvis Presley loved her guitar playing, Little Richard first performed on her stage, and Johnny Cash once told his daughter that she was his favorite singer. She emerged from a devout tradition of performance to record hits and play for secular as well as religious audiences. She lived and toured with a woman partner, Marie Knight, an “open secret” that “might have been liberating” to queer members of her audience in an era before gay liberation, writes Wald. We are proud to feature Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Women’s Voices, and we are thrilled that she is finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Top image credits: Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing with Lucky Millinder’s Jazz Band, ca. 1943. Photo Credit: Pictorial Press, Ltd. / Alamy.