Rosetta Tharpe is known as “the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I would go farther and say the she invented rock ‘n’ roll. She also fostered advances in the genre after it was born. But she couldn’t have done any of it without the racial and religious context in which she grew up. Rosetta Tharpe used her immeasureable natural talent to synthesize a multitude of genres into something new, something that changed the world.
Rosetta was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. She began playing the guitar when she was three years old. By the time she was four, she was playing alongside her mother, Katie, in the Church of God in Christ. Her mother was an evangelist for COGIC, preaching in congregations in the area. It wasn’t long before they were so well known that Katie decided to head for big time. When Rosetta was six, Katie left her husband and the rest of her kids for Chicago.
In Chicago, Katie and Rosetta became big draws at the COGIC at Fortieth and State as well as other churches in Chicago. A black woman doing domestic work at that time was doing well to make $10 a week, but Katie and Rosetta could bring in $50 per week through special offerings. By the time Rosetta was twelve, she had quit school and devoted herself solely to performance. Even the Depression didn’t dampen their opportunities. In fact, it may have even helped as people turned to religion in the face of despair. Her faith not only was a source of comfort and income, but it shaped her as a performer.
COGIC began as the black wing of the Pentacostal world. Pentacostalism emerged from the Holiness movement of the 19th century. The critical theological piece for the Holiness movement was the idea that there was a “second grace,” a second transformation apart from salvation that removed the desire for sin. However, more important for the development of COGIC was its roots in “hush arbors,” meetings of Christianized slaves deep in the fields away from the masters’ eyes. The “second grace” was expressed through an embodied spirituality with speaking in tongues, ecstatic dancing, miraculous healings, falling out, and shouts, all of which connected these new Christians to their African religious roots. After slavery ended, the Azusa Street Revival and its child, Church of God in Christ, became the impassioned, embodied branch of the black church.
A COGIC service proceeds according to scripted cues, so the emotional release is both performative and spontaneous. A musician like Rosetta would learn to play off the preacher and the audience, sensing where they were emotionally and providing the cue to take it to the next level. This is what gave her, not only her performance skills in taking an audience along for a ride, but also allowed her to adapt to an infinite range of genres, including swing, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and folk. Listen to “Rock Me” recorded in 1938 as a solo, belting out the blues, and “Rock Me” recorded in 1941 as a swing number with Lucky Millinder, sounding like a smooth Billie Holiday.
Her real breakthrough, the one that changed the face of music, came in 1944 with “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” The development of musical styles is a messy business, so there are many contenders to be “the first rock ‘n’ roll song.” One could make the case that the confluence of her 1938 “Rock Me” and Pete Johnson’s “Roll’em Pete” are the two legs on which rock ‘n’ roll walked. But it is impossible to underestimate the influence “Strange Things” had on rock ‘n’ roll. The song had faded from the charts, but Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips had a habit of playing whatever he wanted. He began playing it again in the early 1950s and proclaiming it a current hit. Everyone at Sun Records heard it: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley. They all said that Rosetta was their favorite on the radio growing up. Lewis played “Strange Things” as his audition for Sun, which is fitting because his piano style is lifted straight from Rosetta’s guitar. Carl Perkins learned to play guitar listening to Rosetta. Even the Jordanaires, who would later become Elvis’s backing vocals, toured with Rosetta before they joined him. Rosetta Tharpe invented rock ‘n’ roll.
But she didn’t stop there. Whenever she played live in a package show with other guitarists, she would invite them onto the stage to trade licks. She always dominated. In the process, she invented rock lead guitar. Her guitar solos defined the form. She even invented the duck walk, for which Chuck Berry was famous, but she did it in a skirt and high heels. But for all the success she had a musician, her career was up and down.
From the beginning, like all gospel musicians, she was put to a choice. If she decided to play the blues or jazz or, later, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, she risked losing her gospel audience, the community that had nurtured her. But if she stayed in gospel, she was always compared to Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia represented a smoother, more “respectable” black religion and so had more mainstream success. It was hard to compete. An argument could be made that her career rose and fell in parallel to the degree to which she was seen to be flirting with any genre besides gospel. Playing gospel music in the Pentacostal tradition also put a lot of strictures on her life.
To be Pentacostal was to be one of the “sanctified,” a people set apart from the world. That second grace meant that sin of any kind was met with harsh reproach. It was already a risk for gospel musicians to play in the same clubs as blues and jazz artists, but it could be justified as an evangelistic move. The reality is that those gospel artists were sinning as much as their secular peers, but it was kept quiet. Unless someone pushed the wrong boundary or angered the wrong person. Enter Marie Knight.
Rosetta met Marie in 1947 and knew immediately that she had found her perfect duet partner. Marie brought out a softer, more melodic side in her singing. But she was also a partner offstage. It was well known that Rosetta and Marie were lovers, a fact that had the potential to stand in the way of Rosetta’s third marriage. They parted ways in 1950, about the time that Rosetta was planning her marriage to Russell Williamson in a combined wedding/concert at Griffith Stadium. Ironically, it was a publicity stunt meant to jumpstart her flagging career and put to rest any rumors that, as one gospel scholar put it, she “belonged to the Whosoever Will Church, as in Whosoever Will Let Him (or Her) Come.” But it was a transparent affair. People showed up for the spectacle, but the honeymoon tour faltered.
By the mid-1950s, Rosetta was overshadowed by rock ‘n’ roll in the secular world and Mahalia in the gospel world. Russell was supposed to managing her career, but was really just spending her money. Her house was repossessed. Finally, in the late 1950s, whe began a series of blues revival tours in Europe.
Many black artists, musicians, and intellectuals had left for Europe. It was very difficult for musicians to tour in the South because of Jim Crow, even though it was the home of their roots and their audience. But Europeans had begun rediscover blues musicians on old records, some of whom hadn’t ever gotten a payday. Rosetta was on those tours. She got paid better than anything she had ever done, but she also sparked the British Invasion. In the audience, mesmerized by her talents, were future legends of rock ‘n’ roll, such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Ginger Baker. She spent much of the rest of her career in Europe.
In 1970, she was scheduled to play in Sweden, but she was unable to go on because her hand were paralyzed. It turned out to be a stroke brought on by advanced diabetes. She returned to the States, but resisted going to the doctor for a couple of reasons. First, as a Pentacostal, she believed in miraculous healing. If she was meant to be healed, God would do it. Second, there was long history of distrust between black people and doctors after blacks were refused service during Jim Crow. Left untreated, her diabetes required the amputation of one of her legs when a sore wouldn’t heal. She sank into a depression, unable to perform her way. But Russell had spent all the money from Europe, so he continued to book her on a grueling schedule. The venues got smaller and smaller along with the pay. Finally, she succumbed to another stroke in 1973. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia.
Rosetta Tharpe broke the mold. She was nurtured by her faith even as she challenged her religious tradition. She brought together myriad musical styles to invent something completely new. Even when her invention overshadowed her, she continued advance and inform the progress of the art. As is often the case, a black woman did the work, and white men got the glory. Those men saw her and responded, but they weren’t just responding to her. Whether secular or sacred, Rosetta knew how to call the Spirit forth and invest it in a body. Rosetta moved people and they were inspired.