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Black History Month: Sister Rosetta Tharpe was ‘Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the heart and soul of a gospel-singing Black woman whose swagger and howling electric guitar will finally be recognized when Sister Rosetta Tharpe is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The 33rd annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be take place April 14 at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium. The 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees also include Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, Bon Jovi, The Cars, and Nina Simone.

Tharpe, who had a rumored romantic relationship with singer Marie Knight, among other women, also might have been bisexual or queer.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Tharpe, known as the “Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” with her guitar-playing style that could rival her male counterparts, is credited with inspiring such rock legends as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.

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Also, Tharpe introduced 14-year-old Little Richard to the stage, sparking his love of performing.

Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe, christened Rosetta Nubin, picked up a guitar at 4 and then, at the tender age of 6, began singing with her mother at church and revivals.

Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll

After moving to Chicago, Tharpe began experimenting with different styles, marrying gospel with Delta blues and New Orleans jazz and her howling electric guitar to create her signature sound, which helped her attract a wider audience.

Although enjoying success for many years among black and gospel audiences, Tharpe was catapulted into the mainstream with her 1938 record “Rock Me.”

Her 1945 recording, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” is credited as the first gospel song to cross over to the “race” charts, which later became known as the R&B charts. The song reached No. 2 and was an early model for rock ‘n’ roll.

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is considered the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll. Her achievements will be recognized in April when she is inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall Fame. Photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Marie Knight

Tharpe also raised a few eyebrows among the more conservative gospel community folk.

In 1946, Tharpe met singer Marie Knight. After recording “Up Above My Head,” the pair teamed up and toured. They worked together until 1950.

Rumors circulated for years that the women had a romantic relationship. Tharpe also had been married previously twice to men. She married a third time in 1951.

In 2007, Gayle Wald wrote a biography about the trailblazing musician, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” Tharpe died in 1973 and didn’t leave any archives or written record about her life, Wald said.

When Wald asked Knight about the rumors of an intimate relationship with Tharpe, Knight told her they were untrue.

Sexuality and identity

Wald also interviewed other sources who spoke about Tharpe’s attractions to men and women, but none of them would go on the record, Wald said.

“Do I think Sister Rosetta Tharpe had attractions to and sexual relations with women? Yes,” Wald said. “But I don’t know if she used any words to identify herself.”

Wald said she wasn’t surprised that people didn’t go on the record about Tharpe’s sexuality.

“In the gospel world, it was understood that people protected each other’s privacy. You didn’t want to ruin anyone’s career or life,” Wald said. “That way, people lived their lives as openly as they could.

“I think she lived in a world with a certain amount of openness,” Wald said. “It was typical for people to be out, but there was no attempt to be public or for their private life to be a part of their public identity.”

Health issues, historical marker

Tharpe continued to have success through the 1950s, but by the time the 1960s rolled around, she began to lose fans to a new musical revolution. Tharpe then moved to England and performed her signature music for young blues fans of London and Liverpool.

Tharpe’s performances were curtailed by a stroke in 1970. A short time later, one of Tharpe’s legs was amputated due to diabetes complications.

On October 9, 1973, the eve of a scheduled recording session in Philadelphia, Tharpe had another stroke and died.

Almost 15 years later, on July 15, 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp honoring Tharpe.

In 2007, Tharpe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

In 2008, a concert was held to raise funds for a gravestone that was placed later that year.

Later, a Pennsylvania historical marker was approved for her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and January 11 was Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.

About the author

Beatriz E. Valenzuela

Beatriz E. Valenzuela is an award-winning journalist who’s covered breaking news in Southern California since 2006 and has been on the front lines of national and international news events. She also covers all things nerd, including comic book culture and video games. She’s an amateur obstacle course racer, constant fact-checker, mother of three, and lover of all things geek.

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