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.

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, 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.

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.

HAVING A GIRLFRIEND

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.

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 following their initial meeting in 1946.

“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 2016, the musical “Marie And Rosetta,” based on Knight and Tharpe’s relationship, opened at the Atlantic Theater Company 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.

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.

BLUES HALL OF FAME

Almost 15 years later, 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.

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

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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