Other Players

In praise of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, again…


... because she still hasn't quite got her due.

I hope we're all aware of Sister Rosetta, but every time I delve into her history and recordings it seems to come as a fresh revelation that she truly, with justice - and without exaggeration - deserves wider recognition as the Original Queen of Soul and Godmother of Rock & Roll.

As for her soul royalty, she and Big Maybelle probably deserve sister thrones: those huge and expressive voices, each with her own inimitable control and delivery, are packed to the brim with all the heart and soul we can handle. They certainly prefigure and chart a path for Aretha and any R&B/soul singers who came after.

But Sister Tharpe's remarkable musical fusions tore down previously insurmountable barriers in ways that made the pop music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s possible. She was arguably the first to present gospel music in secular settings, accept secular influences in gospel, and catalyze a fertile cross-pollination of the two. Watching her, listening to her performances, you realize that, to her, it was all one big glorious undivided and indivisible thing: that the music itself was bigger and more powerful than any attempts to limit and define it.

That is, she refused to impose restrictions on herself, or submit to anyone else's. Which is itself a rock & roll attitude more rockers espouse than actually live up to.

And I don't think she had a thing to prove, I think she was just being herself - doing what it came naturally to her to do, thereby not only jump-starting at least a couple genres of pop music, but providing an object lesson in the power of being who you are. A plus-sized black female gospel performer, born in southern US rural poverty, who just happened to invent (among other things) a good chunk of what skinny British white boys would transmute into "blues-rock" years later (and ride to rock star glory)? Yeahman! Why not?

What's more, they credited her. Clapton, Beck, and Keef were all inspired and influenced by her May 7, 1964 appearance at the train station in Manchester. She was a favorite singer of Elvis, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash. Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis acknowledged her influence. She's deep in the roots of rock & roll (AND soul), every bit as fundamental as Robert Johnson, Big Joe Turner, or T-Bone Walker.

Backed by big bands heavy on boogie-woogie piano, starting in the 30s - and ending with her distinctive small guitar-driven combos - she was a bridge between eras. And boy howdy, how this setting for a gospel tune must have had church ladies clutching their pearls and deacons decrying hellfire from the pulpit in 1941:

While she was playing guitar in her mother's Pentecostal evangelical revue by the age of 6, she was first recorded on electric guitar in the mid-40s. While most existing film of per performances come from the 50s and 60s, the unique style was present from the beginning. Some styles she fused have rarely been attempted.

Check out this performance from a French jazz festival in 1960, where she strangles rockabilly bebop rock-n-roll licks from a Gretsch against a band that's what? R&B, Dixieland (complete with a rhythm-choppin' banjo!), gospel, soul? Yes!

Note how skillfully and naturally she interacts with what was surely a house band for the festival, how generous she is to soloists, how surely she leads the whole performance. Just pure musicianship.

Or the same band doing one of her first hits (from the 30s): a electric blues-Dixieland talkin' preachment agin hypocrisy in the church, pretense, classism, sexism, greed, educated fools - all chorused by a pre-hippie plea for love and understading.

Another from the same show.

And here's a 1964 medley of a raver, a ballad, and her shufflin' gospel standard "This Train." I mean, come on! The voice, the delivery, the guitar mastery, the savvy pacing and performance.

Getting deep into her contributions to the instrumental vocabulary, attitude, and tone of blues-rock guitar heros to come, check out this seam rippin' exercise:

The same driven tone is on display in this familiar romp:

A pretty good historical overview...

Getting in deeper, part of a 4-part history. (Parts 1 & 2 are blocked in the US.)

3: 4:

All this, plus multiple marriages (one of which she charged concert admission to), skillful media manipulation, and likely bisexuality. Despite so many barriers, to the best of her drive and determination, she did it her way.

How many years ahead of her time?

The story gets better every time I think of it.


Very well stated, and I have seen pix of here somewhere over in the UK with a young Ginger Baker on drums.

She honked thru Gretsch amps some of the time ... Valco, the pride of Chicago


Could we stretch enough to say that her downtuned licks through hard-pushed amps set the ball rolling towards heavy metal?

Cuz I’m stretching! She even predates Link Wray in that regard.


I guess it's too much to say she's been totally overlooked in the culture: the USPS did a Rosetta stamp in 1998, and she was inducted into the R&R Hall of Historical Distortion in 2018 (!) as an "influencer" (come ON, guys). So it's not like she a total unknown. And apparently her fame was pretty general, even in the US, in her heyday.

But she didn't appear in any rock & roll origin myths I was exposed to prior to, say, the turn of the century.

Which makes me wonder if it was just pure racism, sexism, and cultural/industry resentment (fear?) of the other that prevented her acknowledgement in the mainstream of rock & roll culture through the 60s, 70s, and onward. Without getting into issues of appropriation - to what extent white America "stole" black culture to remake it in its own paler image (I prefer to think music itself can be color-blind, available to any who connect with it) - well, she was even left out of that.

Not that many years ago, it would have been common for pop histories of rock & roll to begin with Bill Haley and/or Elvis Presley; more informed lineages would go back to acknowledge Ike's "Rocket 88", maybe T-Bone, even Louis Jordan and other jump bluesmen. Muddy's electric Chicago blues ensembles would get some credit for formalizing the guitar band, and I remember a suggestion from decades ago that the sophisticated Boswell Sisters' song "Rock and Roll" in 1934 was somehow a forerunner.

So it's been decades since it was difficult to find black men cited in the roots of rock. How did a black woman - who apparently had wider popular recognition at one time than some of them, and was demonstrably their equal or better as a guitarist - end up being left out of the story for so long? Just that she was also a woman, or were her obvious personal strength and charisma intimidating? Did suggestions and rumors of her transgressive sexuality play a role? Or was it her cheerful refusal to let the rules (anyone's!) define or bind her?


Not to compare apples and oranges, but rather, add to the roster, Lizzie Douglas, better known as Memphis Minnie, was one of the earliest blues artists to play the electric guitar. Born in the 1800s, she began recording in the late 1920s and her recording of, "Bumble Bee'' represents an early rendition of the blues as a solid 12 bar form. She lived in Chicago for a period of time and was known to hold her own in guitar cutting contests with the likes of Big Bill Broonzy. Her performance career was cut short by strokes, but ironically, she died in 1973, the same year as the passing of Sister Rosetta. She stayed for the most part within the blues idiom, so had less of an influence on the development of rhythm&blues/rock&roll, but was one of the earliest pioneers on the electric guitar and certainly, musically significant in the development of American music. I haven't found any video of her playing, but here's a sample of her recorded work. She was also a composer.

Her earlier work was closer to the southern country blues styles that evolved during reconstruction, but the fact that she was part of and thrived in the urban style associated with the electric guitar and the Chicago scene, shows that she was a truly contemporary artist of her generation. All of these women should have been paid a whole lot more.

(solo at 1:45)



Yep, and she co-wrote “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929 for Led Zeppelin...


Yep, and she co-wrote “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929 for Led Zeppelin...

– Proteus


Woke up this mornin' baby, Both the goddam cars was gone.

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