APRIL 30, 1945
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the “godmother of rock ‘n’ roll,” made history by becoming the first gospel artist to rocket up the R&B charts with her gospel hit, “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” In so doing, she paved the way for a strange new sound.
“Rock ‘n’ roll was bred between the church and the nightclubs in the soul of a queer Black woman in the 1940s named Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” National Public Radio wrote. “She was there before Elvis, Little Richard and Johnny Cash swiveled their hips and strummed their guitars. It was Tharpe, the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, who turned this burgeoning musical style into an international sensation.”
Born in Arkansas, the musical prodigy grew up in Mississippi in the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal denomination that welcomed all-out music and praise. By age 6, she was performing alongside her mandolin-playing mother in a traveling evangelistic troupe. By the mid-1920s, she and her mother had joined the Great Migration to Chicago, where they continued performing.
“As Tharpe grew up, she began fusing Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel music into what would become her signature style,” NPR wrote. Her hard work paid off when she joined the Cotton Club Revue in New York City. She was only 23. Before the end of 1938, she recorded gospel songs for Decca, including “Rock Me,” which became a huge hit and made her an overnight sensation. Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Lee Lewis have all cited her as an influence.
“Sister Rosetta played guitar like the men I was listening to, only smoother, with bigger notes,” said singer-songwriter Janis Ian. “And of course, personally, any female player was a big influence on me, because there were so few.”
After hearing her successors on the radio, Tharpe was quoted as saying, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”
On the eve of a 1973 recording session, she died of a stroke and was buried in an unmarked grave. In the decades that followed, she finally began to receive the accolades that had eluded her in life. In 2007, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and money was raised for her headstone. Eleven years later, she was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame.
“She was, and is,” NPR concluded, “an unmatched artist.”