black history music

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was illustrated by Emma Thacker. It is featured in the Illustrated Women in History zine #5 which is available here

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the ‘godmother of rock ‘n’ roll’. She was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist.

Tharpe’s mother encouraged her musically and by 4 years old she was performing under the name ‘Little Rosetta Nubin’ (Rosetta Nubin is her birth name). She would sing and play guitar. At six Tharpe was playing music as part of a traveling evangelical troupe and billed as a ‘guitar playing miracle’. In the mid 1920’s they moved to Chicago where Tharpe played at the COGIC church on 40th Street and started to attract some fame due to the fact that there were relatively few well known black female guitarists at the time apart from blues legend Memphis Minnie. In Chicago she was exposed to the Blues and Jazz.

After a short marriage (where she gained the name Tharpe) she moved to New York City and signed with Decca records. She recorded the first songs on Decca records, they were instant hits. On December 23, 1938 Tharpe performed as part of John Hammond’s famous Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. She was playing gospel amongst predominantly jazz and blues performers and they found her shocking and revolutionary. Firstly because of the fact that she was a black woman playing guitar, which Conservative christians frowned upon, but because she was playing gospel music to a secular audience. Her guitar style was unique, blending blues with traditional folk arrangements. She used a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear signifiers of rock ‘n’ roll.

Tharpe went on to regularly perform with jazz legend Cab Calloway at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, pushing to unite religious gospel music with more secular sounds. Her crossover appeal lead to her being was one of only two African American artists asked to record V-Discs (The ‘V’ stood for Victory) for American soldiers overseas during WWII.

In the 1940’s Tharpe began to record with an electric guitar, you can clearly see her infulence in later records by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Tharpe released a song in 1945 recorded with Sammy Price called ’ Strange Things Happening Every Day’. It became the first gospel record to ‘cross over’ and reach Billboard’s race records Top Ten, she went on to repeat this success with later records. This chart was later the R&B chart and the record is thought to be the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

Tharpe was an influence on many musicans; Elvis Presley loved her ferocious guitar-playing, especially her picking technique; Little Richard sang his first public performance outside of a church after being invited up on stage with Tharpe; Johnny Cash stated Tharpe was his favourite singer growing up.

Sources here, here, here, here and here.

You can find more of Emma’s work here

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