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Queer History: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, godmother of rock ‘n’ roll

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel-singing black lesbian who played a kick-ass electric guitar, influenced rock legends such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.

Tharpe, whose howling electric guitar rivaled her male counterparts, is the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.

Tharpe’s amazing talents were recognized in April when she was posthumously inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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

HOWLING ELECTRIC GUITAR

Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe, was christened Rosetta Nubin. She picked up a guitar at 4 and then, two years later, started singing at church with her mom.

Tharpe eventually moved to Chicago and experimented with different musical styles. She married gospel with Delta blues and New Orleans jazz with her howling electric guitar to create her signature sound. That musical creation also helped her appeal to a larger audience.

Tharpe was catapulted into the music mainstream with her 1938 record “Rock Me.”

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Seven years later, her 1945 track “Strange Things Happening Every Day” is acknowledged as the first gospel song to cross over to the “race” charts, which later was renamed the R&B charts. The song reached No. 2 and was a huge influence for rock ‘n’ roll.

HAD A GIRLFRIEND

Tharpe musical relationships also raised a few eyebrows. In 1946, Tharpe met singer Marie Knight, and after they recorded “Up Above My Head,” the two ladies teamed up and went on tour.

In Gayle Wald’s 2007 biography of Tharpe, “Shout, Sister, Shout!,” the author wrote that Tharpe and singer Marie Knight became lovers in an “open secret.” The women performed together for many years.

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“For homosexuals in her audiences, rumors about Rosetta’s sexuality might have been liberating, an invitation to look for tell-tale signs of affirmation of their own veiled existence,” Wald wrote in her book.

The musical “Marie And Rosetta,” based on Knight and Tharpe’s relationship, opened in 2016 in New York City 

HEALTH PROBLEMS

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.

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Tharpe performed less live gigs after having a stroke in 1970. Three years later, Oct. 9, 1973, on the eve of a recording session in Philadelphia, Tharpe suffered another stroke and died.

BLUES HALL OF FAME

On July 15, 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Tharpe.

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

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A Pennsylvania historical marker was placed at her former residence in Yorktown, a Philadelphia neighborhood. Later, January 11 was designated Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.

Phillip Zonkel can be reached at 562-294-5996 or phillip.zonkel@qvoicenews.com.

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About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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