Rosetta Tharpe- The Unsung Pioneer of Rock & Roll
When you think of Rock & Roll, most people tend to associate this genre of music with the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the list goes on. What do all of these people/groups have in common? We challenge you, just simply Google “Rock and Roll” or “Rock and Roll All-Stars” and see the images that the web is flooded with. The imagery that is put out there for the world to see is that Rock & Roll is a White-dominated genre and that most Black people, or minorities in general for that matter, do not partake in this particular style of music. But would you believe us if we told you that a Black woman is actually said to be the inventor of Rock & Roll as we know it today?
When you Google Elvis it says, “He is regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century and is often referred to as the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ or simply ‘the King’.”
When you Google Johnny Cash it says that he was one of, “the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide.”
But would you believe us if we said that Elvis, the self-proclaimed, “King of Rock and Roll” was an adoring fan of Rosetta Tharpe? Elvis Presley loved Rosetta and particularly admired her guitar playing skills. She inspired him at a very young age. In fact, as a young boy, he would run home from school each day just to watch Rosetta on tv. He never missed a show.
As for the famous Johnny Cash, he once said that Rosetta Tharpe was one of his favorite singers. In fact, during Johnny Cash’s acceptance speech at his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1992, he paid homage to Rock’s early influences on him and was sure to mention Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
So if Rosetta Tharpe came before all of the greats that we know and love today, and if she helped to lay down the foundation for them and served as inspiration, why is it that she is not a household name and well known as the others? Why don’t we know her name? Why is it that her story is not known?
Maybe it’s because she was Black. Or maybe it’s because she was a Black woman. Or maybe it’s because she was a Black woman who was gay. Perhaps it was because she was a Black woman who was gay and rocked out in a full-length church dress. Rosetta certainly did not fit the stereotypical description of a famed rocker. Either way, her contributions are noteworthy, and her story is a part of history and deserves to be told and shared.
Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915 to two cotton pickers. She did not have a luxurious childhood, but she surely made up for it when she rose to fame as a musician. Rosetta began playing the guitar at the tender age of six. She was talented, and it showed. When she started off, she mainly performed in the church in a more traditional way using an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t until around 1938 that she decided to switch up her more traditional gospel sound and expand beyond the walls of the church. During this time is when she first stepped on the stage of the infamous Cotton Club in New York City where she performed her different style to a full house. People had never seen anything like it before. The way that she slang that guitar around putting such emotion and expression into her voice as she sang was captivating. They were intrigued and one performance left them wanting more. Rosetta took her talent on the road across the country and touched the lives of many. A fun fact, in 1945during one of her performances she let a teenage boy on stage with her and invited him to sing. He would later say that that was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. That boy, Richard Penniman went on to be inspired and become the iconic performer that we know today as Little Richard. He too was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame decades before Rosetta in 1986.
What really helped to propel her career was when she traded in her traditional acoustic guitar for an edgier sound with an electric guitar around 1947. That is when she arrived. She was known for her luxurious style and over-the-top scenes that she would create. There was no one like her. She would literally step out on the scene in a horse-drawn carriage in a floor-length fur. Think of the Rock Star lifestyle that we all hear about today. A life of luxury and extravagance. Rosetta started it all. If you think that a horse-drawn carriage was over the top, she took it a step further when she began to arrive at performances with a decked-out bus. Not only did she invent Rock & Roll, but she was also said to have invented the Tour Bus as we know it today. Many celebrities and performers now use luxury tour busses to take them and their entourage around as they tour the country. Traveling on a bus wasn’t unheard of, but the way that she transformed the bus was. She had a self-designed, customized, hotel on wheels equipped with beds, mirrors, and all the glam that you can think of. The purpose of creating it she said was out of necessity. As her and her crew traveled, it was important to her to have a safe, comfortable place where they could prepare for their performances. This type of bus was the first of its kind. You must remember; Rosetta was thriving during a time when racism was still all too real. There were many places that she could not freely go to and stop in on her route to her destinations. It just wasn’t safe. They had a place to eat, sleep, dress, shower, etc. They had all they needed on her luxury bus.
She sold-out concerts everywhere she went. As was the case during one of her performances in Georgia where she sold 5,000 tickets, which was the capacity, and had to turn down over 6,000 more people who were wanting to see her perform.
Rosetta Tharpe didn’t get the recognition that she deserved. Compared to her counterparts like The Beatles who came after her and garnered public recognition through news coverage but sold-out concerts with thousands of fewer people. She finally got her roses many years after it was deserved when she was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Keep in mind, the same people who she served as an inspiration to had received their honors years before she was even thought of to be recognized.
She defined the sound of Rock & Roll as we know it; yet, not much of Rosetta Tharpe is known today. She did not get the media coverage that she deserved. There are no epic biopics or fancy covers of magazines that we can look at to learn more about her story. She is the definition of the mission of OBR. Untold Black Excellence. Help us to resurrect stories of the past by sharing stories like Rosetta Tharpe’s.
Lorusso, M. (2019, September 27). How One Of Music’s Biggest Stars Almost Disappeared, And How Her Legacy Was Saved. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/09/27/759601364/how-one-of-musics-biggest-stars-almost-disappeared-and-how-her-legacy-was-saved
Patterson, N. (20). Spotlight on The King #1: How Sister Rosetta Tharpe Influenced Elvis’ Music. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from http://www.elvisinfonet.com/tharpe.html
Rose, C. (2019, September 24). She Can Make That Guitar Talk. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/09/24/759600717/she-can-make-that-guitar-talk