Take a moment and think about some early pioneers of rock and roll music or those who had significant impact on the genre and its future. Have your list? Chances are most of you included Elvis Presley because he has been idolized as the “King of Rock and Roll” and he did have a serious impact on music in general. Other viable choices are Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and others. However, I am willing to bet that not many of you know about Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Rosetta Nubin was born on March 20, 1915 in a rural area of Arkansas, to parents who worked as cotton pickers in a field. When her mother wasn’t tirelessly working, she played mandolin, sang, and precached in their church. Although little is known about Tharpe’s father, it is said that he was also a singer and transferred his talents over to his daughter.
Growing up in the church, music just seeped into Rosetta’s bloodstream and influenced her to begin playing at a very young age. At 4 years old, she began playing under the name Little Rosetta Nubin and was named as a musical prodigy, probably way before this term was freely uttered. By 6, Tharpe was a touring musician alongside her mother and was known as a “singing and guitar playing miracle.”
Besides her immense raw talent, Tharpe is also regarded for her extensive recording career which began in 1938 at the age of 38 (Elvis was four at this time by the way) with Decca Records. She was also a regular guest artist with the great jazz bandleader Cab Calloway.
Tharpe’s influence can be linked to several styles including British blues with musicians like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton as well as rock and roll as we mentioned above. In fact, she is noted as being “one of the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her guitar.” She was simply one cool lady and a badass musician who more people need to be hip to. Thankfully, a resurgence in her popularity as spiked in the past few years and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally recognized Tharpe in 2017, chosen as an Early Influence. If you love rock, blues, or gospel music or appreciate history, you need to check out Sister Rosetta Tharpe!