MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Pioneering singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born 94 years ago today. Tharpe was a major influence on generations of rock and soul musicians, but fans hoping to pay their respects on her birthday would've had a hard time finding her grave until now. Joel Rose reports.
(Soundbite of music)
JOEL ROSE: At the peak of her career, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the top draws in gospel and in popular music, period.
(Soundbite of song, "Strange Things Happening Every Day")
Ms. SISTER ROSETTA THARPE (Musician): (Singing) Oh, we hear church people sing. They are in this holy way. There are strange things happening every day.
ROSE: Her 1945 crossover hit, "Strange Things Happening Every Day," was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and admired by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Bob Dylan. But when she died, Tharpe was buried here, at Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, without so much as a headstone. Bob Merz decided to do something about that.
Mr. BOB MERZ (Writer, Publisher): If you look back on the most influential musicians of the 20th century, she's probably in the top 10, and here she was right in Philadelphia in our backyard, and no one even knew about her at all.
ROSE: Including Merz. He's a writer and publisher who lives near Philadelphia. Merz organized a benefit concert to pay for Tharpe's headstone after seeing an interview on TV with her biographer, Gayle Wald.
Ms. GAYLE WALD (Biographer): Here is a young woman in the 1940s who came out of the gospel church who was playing with that rock and roll style. 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 specifically.
ROSE: Sister Rosetta Tharpe was strutting around a stage with her guitar and strumming windmills decades before Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend.
(Soundbite of music)
ROSE: Tharpe was a self-taught guitarist. She was born in Arkansas and raised in the Pentecostal Church. She honed her skills on street corners and at revivals and eventually hit the gospel circuit. Tharpe was appearing in Baltimore when she met her lifelong friend, Roxie Moore.
Ms. ROXIE MOORE: She could play a guitar like nobody else you've ever seen. You know, people would flock to see her. Everybody loved her.
ROSE: Around 1938, Tharpe decided to leave the Pentecostal Church and move to New York City, where she started playing in nightclubs and theaters.
(Soundbite of song, "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa")
Ms. THARPE: (Singing) I want a tall, skinny papa. I want a tall, skinny papa.
ROSE: Tharpe alienated many of her churchgoing fans when she joined Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra, but Roxie Moore says that was not Tharpe's intent.
Ms. MOORE: He promised her that she would only have to do her gospel music, but after she had signed the contract, then he told her would have to sing whatever he asked her to sing. So she was unhappy about that, but she did it.
ROSE: After Tharpe broke with Millinder, she went back to singing more spiritual material, but she was always flamboyant. Ira Tucker Jr. grew up watching Tharpe perform with his father's gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds, in the 1940s and '50s.
Ms. IRA TUCKER JR.: She was a rock star, you know, like Beyonce today and people like that. That's what Rosetta was to us.
ROSE: 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.
Unidentified Man (Minister): I, Rosetta.
Ms. THARPE: I, Rosetta.
Unidentified Man: Take thee, Russell(ph).
Ms. THARPE: Take thee, Russell.
Unidentified Man: For my wedded husband.
Ms. THARPE: For my wedded husband.
Ms. WALD: They billed it as a wedding concert, sold tickets.
ROSE: Biographer Gayle Wald.
Ms. WALD: Fans not only showed up and paid money to be there for the ceremony, but they brought gifts for her, and she played her electric guitar from center field, from a stage in center field, in her wedding dress.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. THARPE: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
ROSE: 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, says Roxie Moore, she wasn't very good with money.
Ms. MOORE: She was easily taken advantage of, and she was kind to everybody, but anybody could use her.
ROSE: 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. Ira Tucker Jr.
Mr. TUCKER: Because see, the guitar still had the devil's stamp on it to gospel singers and to the gospel audience, but Rosetta kept it with her. She didn't really care whether you liked that or not. She went out there with her ax and played and sang, and that was it.
ROSE: It's been more than three decades since Sister Rosetta Tharpe died of a stroke, but Tharpe's fans have finally paid her back with a proper memorial. Roxie 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. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
(Soundbite of song, "Down By The Riverside")
Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Down by the riverside, down by the riverside, I'm gonna try on my long white robe down by the riverside and study war no more. I ain't gonna study war no more. I ain't gonna study war no more, no, no, I ain't gonna study, study war no more. Ain't gonna study, no, I ain't gonna study. Oh, I ain't gonna study war no more. I ain't gonna study. I ain't gonna study. I ain't gonna study war no more.
(Soundbite of applause)