When someone has a cultural impact like Elvis did, it’s easy to imagine they just showed up on the scene fully formed. That’s never the case, though. Every iconic figure draws on inspiration, including the King.
Before there was Elvis, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Never heard of her? Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Aretha Franklin have.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in 1915. Her mother was a preacher who loved music, and that environment shaped the rest of Tharpe’s life.
She was considered a prodigy. Tharpe’s mother, Katie Bell Nubin Atkins, played mandolin and encouraged Rosetta to play a wide variety of music. That led to Tharpe’s unique guitar style, which mixed included blues, gospel, and jazz elements.
Tharpe was playing guitar for church services at age four (in 1919!), and touring by age six. The touring life appealed to her, and it would stick with her for the rest of her life. However, she had to go through some hard time first.
Tharpe took her last name from the preacher she married at age 19. When she divorced him at age 23, she took the last name with her as a stage name.
When Tharpe took her career into her own hands, she didn’t waste time. She signed onto Decca Records the same year she got her divorce.
Tharpe’s music was a smash hit. Her first four singles were a then-shocking combination of gospel-esque lyrics and secular tunes. It was hugely appealing to the secular Great Depression audiences, even though it appalled Tharpe’s gospel community.
This blend of musical influences was the key to Tharpe’s legacy. Her music was unique. She was one of the first performers to incorporate electric guitars and urban blues styles with the already-popular gospel genre. She brought stomping, singing, and shouting out of enthusiastic church services and into ecstatic concerts.
Tharpe’s blend of religious and secular influences led her gospel community to more or less exile her. Tharpe ignored it. She knew the style she was going for, and she kept doing her thing. That was Tharpe’s biggest strength.
She did more than ignore genre boundaries: she ignored social stigmas, too. Guitar was considered an incredibly masculine instrument in the first half of the 20th century. Plenty of people gave her the backhanded compliment that she “played as good as a man.” In fact, she regularly won play-offs against famous male guitarists of the time. The fact that Tharpe could play better than pretty much anyone in the music scene was a transgressive act on its own.
That wasn’t all. In the 1940s, as a religious woman, Tharpe had relationships with women. While she didn’t make these relationships public, she didn’t hide them from her colleagues.
That’s right. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a famous bisexual black woman in the 1940s. She had a long-term partner, Marie Knight, with whom she performed. Knight and Tharpe were partners in every sense of the term for much of the 1940s, making the relationship longer than several of Tharpe’s marriages.
Tharpe’s career started to wane in the US in the 1950s, but she didn’t let that stop her. Instead, she went to Europe. Her most famous recording was actually made in Manchester in 1964. She continued to perform live until a she had stroke in 1970. When she passed away in 1973, she still had scheduled recording sessions on the docket.
Tharpe inspired a laundry list of famous musicians over the course of her career. Little Richard’s first public performance occurred when Tharpe pulled him on stage during a 1947 concert. She paid him for his trouble after the show, and Little Richard decided then and there to become a performer.
When Johnny Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he spoke about Tharpe’s influence on his music. In fact, he named Tharpe as his favorite musician.
Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Meat Loaf have all listed Tharpe as a primary influence in their music.
Most importantly, Tharpe pioneered the electric guitar in blues and gospel music. Her influence led directly to both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s music. Without Tharpe, there is no Elvis.
If Elvis is the King of Rock and Roll, Tharpe is the creator. After 45 years of being ignored, she was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame herself.
Today, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is an inspiration for marginalized people everywhere; she was able to be herself during some of the hardest times in the US. She created a whole new genre, she loved whoever she wanted to, and she is finally being remembered appropriately.