Sister Rosetta Tharpe: When Gospel Met Rock 'n' Roll

Before Elvis and Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash. Before Aretha and Whitney and Beyonce. Before the blues met gospel and conceived rock 'n' roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Pictured: Sister Rosetta Tharpe performs in Cafe Society in 1940. RNS photo by Charles Peterson/courtesy PBS American Masters.
The first gospel superstar, Tharpe was a guitar hero in a flower-print dress whose bluesy chops and strutting style would be mimicked by countless acolytes, both white and black.

"I mean, she's singing religious music, but she is singing rock 'n' roll," said one such devotee, Jerry Lee Lewis, of "Great Balls of Fire" fame. "She's hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, 'Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe!'"

Though no longer a household name, Tharpe gets the star treatment in a new documentary for the PBS series "American Masters." "Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll" will be broadcast Friday (Feb. 22) on PBS in honor of Black History Month.

The documentary offers an overdue coda to an unsung influence on American music. Tharpe died in 1973, and until 2008 her Philadelphia grave lay unmarked. But without the "original soul sister," rock might never have rolled, says Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald.

"When you see Elvis Presley singing early songs in his career, I think you can imagine that he is channeling Rosetta Tharpe," Wald says in the PBS documentary. "It's not an image we're used to thinking about when we think about rock 'n' roll history. We don't think about the black woman behind the young white man."

Born in 1921 in Cotton Plant, Ark., by age 6 Tharpe was playing tabernacles and tent revivals with her mother, an itinerant evangelist in the Church of God in Christ. If a Pentecostal fire kindled the congregation, the talented tot often fanned the flames.

"When she came and they saw the freedom she expressed in her singing and dancing, it woke up the congregation," says COGIC Pastor Robert Hargrove in "Sister Rosetta Tharpe."

SOURCE: Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
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