Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Etched In Stone At Last

Tharpe300; Credit: Joel Rose

Sister Rosetta Tharpe's headstone in Philadelphia's Northwood Cemetery. The memorial was paid for thanks to a benefit concert put on by writer and fan Bob Merz. Joel Rose hide caption

itoggle caption Joel Rose

Friday would have marked the 94th birthday of pioneering singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was a major influence on two generations of rock and soul musicians, but Tharpe is practically unknown today — so unknown that she didn't have a proper headstone until recently.

"If you look back at the most influential musicians of the 20th century, she's probably in the top 10," says Bob Merz, a writer and publisher based in Pennsylvania. "Here she was right in Philadelphia, and no one even knew about her at all."

After seeing an interview on TV with Tharpe's biographer, Gayle Wald, Merz organized a benefit concert to pay for a much-needed memorial of the singer.

"[This] was a young woman in the 1940s who came out of the gospel church playing with that rock and roll style," says Wald. "If this woman was doing this in the 1940s, then you'd have to go back and re-write the whole story of rock and roll, and rock and roll guitar playing, specifically."

Tharpe was a self-taught guitarist, and she strutted around a stage strumming windmills decades before Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. Her 1945 crossover hit "Strange Things Happening Everyday" was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, and admired by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Bob Dylan.

Born in Arkansas, Tharpe was raised in the Pentecostal Church. She honed her skills as a guitarist on street corners and at revivals before eventually hitting the gospel circuit. Tharpe met a lifelong friend, Roxie Moore, while performing in Baltimore.

"She could play a guitar like nobody else you've ever seen," Moore says. "People would flock to see her. Everybody loved her."

Around 1938, Tharpe decided to leave the Pentecostal Church and move to New York City, where she started playing in nightclubs and theaters. She alienated many of her church-going fans when she joined Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra, but the shift to secular music wasn't her idea.

"[Millinder] promised her she'd only have to do gospel music," says Moore. "But after she signed, he said she'd have to sing whatever. She was unhappy about that, but she did it."

After Tharpe broke with Millinder, she went back to singing more spiritual material. But she was always flamboyant.

"She was a rock star," recalls Ira Tucker Jr., who grew up watching Tharpe with his father's gospel group in the 1940s and '50s. "You know, like Beyonce today and people like that. That's what Rosetta was to us."

Tharpe certainly had a flair for the dramatic. She married her third husband in front of 20,000 paying fans at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Gayle Wald says that they billed the event as a wedding concert and sold tickets.

"Fans not only showed up and paid money, but they brought gifts. She played her electric guitar from center field...in her wedding dress."

So, how did Sister Rosetta Tharpe fall so far? For one thing, she had a hard time competing with younger performers — white and black — who updated her style for their generation. Second, she wasn't very good with money.

"She was easily taken advantage of," says Moore. "She was kind to everybody. But anybody could use her."

Tharpe settled in Philadelphia and made a living touring Europe, where she was revered. But at home, she was too sacred for the rock audience and too secular for many gospel fans.

"'Cause see, the guitar still had the devil's stamp on it to gospel singers and to a gospel audience," says Tucker. "But Rosetta kept it with her. She didn't care whether you liked that or not. She went out here and played her ax and that was it. She did what she knew how to do, and people loved it."

It's been more than three decades since Tharpe died of a stroke, but Tharpe's fans have finally paid her back with a proper memorial. Moore wrote the epitaph. It reads:

"She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing."

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