Her body rests in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is all but forgotten today. Yet there are still those who remember her and her gift.
By the age of 3 Rosetta was playing simple gospel songs on the piano and by the age of 6 she was performing publicly with her guitar. She was gifted and God’s gift to Rosetta was music.
Sister Tharpe was among the earliest to play and master the electric guitar. She, along with T-Bone Walker, inspired generations of great guitarist to come, including Chuck Berry. Rosetta Tharpe played the guitar behind her back before T-Bone Walker and Jimi Hendrix and she duck-walked before Chuck Berry!
Many consider Sister Rosetta Tharpe to be the first rock and roll performer although the music she was rockin’ and rollin’ to was gospel! Listen to “Rock Daniel,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Cain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” Many music scholars believe “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which was recorded in 1944, was the first rock and roll record.
How good was Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the guitar? She had no rivals. Sam Cooke, when singing with the Soul Stirrers, used to challenge his group’s guitar player to join Rosetta on stage. It was always a losing proposition. If the guitarist refused, he appeared to be afraid. If he did get on stage with Rosetta, he appeared to be inept.
Elvis loved Rosetta’s singing, but was awestruck at her picking!
In his autobiography, “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash told of an old friend, C.V. White, who “had an album by black singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And that song, ‘Strange Things’ was on the album C.V. and I’d listen to her sing that song over and over again.” Rosetta Tharpe was Johnny’s favorite artist.
“Strange Things Happening Every Day” was one of Carl Perkins’s favorite songs. It was his dad’s favorite song, too. Carl would spend hours trying to learn how to play it. He said, “It was rockabilly, that was it — it was.”
Jerry Lee Lewis used “Strange Things Happening Every Day” to audition for Sam Phillips. His piano style is quite like Rosetta’s. Of Rosetta Tharpe, Jerry Lee said, “There is a woman that can sing some rock and roll!” The Million Dollar Quartet consisting of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis chose to sing two of Rosetta’s hits at their famous 1956 jam session. They chose “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside.”
So, who was the father of rock and roll? Who cares? The mother was Sister Rosetta Tharpe! In time she was honored by receiving her own postage stamp along with the great gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and Roberta Martin.
Mahalia Jackson was the world’s greatest gospel singer, but nobody could stir up an audience like Sister Tharpe. Like everyone else, Rosetta was flawed. She was not perfect, but she loved God and used her gift to share Christ.
Her most vocal critics came from within her church. Tharpe was criticized because she played secular venues as well as churches. She responded to her critics by stating she was sent to save sinners and therefore had to go where sinners could be found — in both venues.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe took the gospel to millions of people. She found her gift early and used it for God. Ninety percent of early rock ‘n’ roll singers learned to sing in the church. The gospel put the rhythm in rhythm and blues and the rock in rock and roll.
Rosetta’s body may lie in an unmarked grave, but she’s singing in glory now. Shout, sister, shout!
Ken Haskins is pastor of First Christian Church in Carson City.