By Siiri Gilness
The early history of rock-and-roll music is dominated by men, young and old, black and white, southerners and northerners, country boys, and blues men. But there were also some remarkable women who contributed to the evolution of the rock sound. One of those women was a talented guitarist and singer from Arkansas named Rosetta Nubin, better known by her stage name: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe came onto the music scene in 1938 and grew famous throughout the 1940s. Though originally a gospel artist, she found a way to merge her gospel roots with her love of the guitar and the popular sounds of jazz and blues, crossing lines between secular and religious music in a way that was appealing to multiple audiences. Playing an electric guitar and singing fusions of gospel, jazz, blues, and folk music in a distinctively killer voice, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was strikingly unique. Not only was she was a woman making her way in a male-dominated music field, she was finding success as a Black entertainer in an era of severe racial discrimination.
Tharpe’s 1945 hit, “Strange Things Happen Every Day,” was a gospel-influenced R&B number that is classified by some music historians as one of the very first rock-and-roll songs. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard admired Tharpe’s style and sound and later cited her as an inspiration for their own music. These four men exploded onto the rock, country, and rockabilly music scenes in the late 1950s, soon to be followed by larger-than-life artists such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
As a new era of rock-and-roll swirled around her, Sister Rosetta Tharpe faded into the background. She continued to perform publicly, and was held in high regard in gospel music circles, but her influence on the rock scene was all but forgotten. Tharpe died in Philadelphia in 1973 at the age of 58 from various health complications.
In a long-overdue tribute to her role as an American music pioneer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Art Matters is a weekly column sponsored by Leach Theatre, a division of Student Affairs, on the campus of Missouri S&T, and produced by Emily Brickler, Managing Director of the theatre and ten-year veteran teacher with a Masters of Art in Teaching from Webster University.