She Can Make That Guitar Talk: On The Road With Sister Rosetta Tharpe Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a superstar of the pre-rock era, traveling the country in a customized bus and performing for tens of thousands, but never got press to match her stardom. What if she had?
NPR logo She Can Make That Guitar Talk

She Can Make That Guitar Talk

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe on tour in the U.K. in 1964.
Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd/Getty Images

The country's most distinguished gospel artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, arrived in Washington, D.C., to perform a sold-out concert. Sister Tharpe spoke to your reporter before her sold-out concert, sitting on her customized tour bus parked outside the venue. The bus — which Sister Thorpe believes is the first of its kind! — is emblazoned with the words SISTER ROSETTA THARPE - DECCA RECORDING ARTIST, painted in a bright and distinctive blue script along the side of the bus.

Sister Tharpe and her backing singers, the Rosettes, welcomed your reporter into the bus' interior. Inside, there are dedicated areas for dressing, eating, and sleeping. The Rosettes eagerly pointed out their dedicated sections of the bus, each featuring a closet and dressing area — no one has to share! Sister Tharpe noted that the line of mirrors running along one side of the bus, to be used for hair and makeup, was inspired by the mirrors installed in the luxurious Richmond, Va. home she shares with her singing partner, "Golden Voice Favorite" Madame Marie Knight, a young singer who was discovered by Sister Tharpe, as well as her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, a noted evangelist from the Church of God In Christ, who got her start at Pastor Robert's Chicago church.

The atmosphere inside the bus is charming and convivial. But its main purpose is an essential one: It assures that the ladies always have a comfortable and discreet place to prepare for their performances; they artists are able to dine in the bus, allowing them to carry-out food and not waste any time on the road. And the sleeping quarters conveniently allow the ensemble the ability to rest while traveling between concert appearances, especially in parts of the country where no suitable accommodation may be available.

When the troupe arrives at their destination they are met by large, sold out crowds. At a recent concert in Macon, Ga., Abner Jay, a disc jockey on local station WMAZ described the scene: "5,000 tickets were sold, that was the seating capacity. It's estimated that they turned down 6,000. I had never seen nothing like it or heard nothing like it. Downtown near the auditorium the whole streets were full of people, no cars. People — standing room only — trying to get to the auditorium two and three blocks away. I never seen nothing like it, nowhere."

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While the information above is correct and documented in interviews with people who were there (like the Jordanaires' Gordon Stoker, who toured with Rosetta Tharpe in the time period she had her bus) published in the late '40s and early '50s, this article itself is pure invention — nothing quite like it exists in any historical newspaper archive. It's hard to comprehend that a successful singer with a truly national profile would be driving through American cities and along highways in a personalized tour bus of her own design — likely the first documented instance of what would become a music business necessity as well as a highly sought-after status symbol for musicians in every genre — without dozens of breathless articles capturing every fabulous detail of the musicians' surroundings, down to the quality of the finishes. The on-the-bus-with-the-musicians trope would become almost standard in artist profiles 20 years later.

Part of Turning The Tables is reflecting back on the originators, the women who defined the sound of popular music, who didn't get sufficient credit when they were working and, in many cases — Rosetta Tharpe being high on that list — have not received anywhere near enough credit from researchers, scholars and archivists. She only made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, decades after many musicians who were directly influenced by her were inducted into their rolls.

But let's imagine a world in which the opposite was true, and she was given her propers.

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WEDDING BELLS RING OUT FOR ...
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
WITNESS THE MOST ELABORATE WEDDING EVER STAGED!
EVERYBODY IS WELCOME!
PLUS WORLD'S GREATEST SPIRITUAL CONCERT!

On July 3, 1951, Sister Rosetta Tharpe married Mr. Russell Morrison at Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium, along with 22,000 guests, a number which surpasses attendance for the Washington Senators baseball team, who make their home at the ballpark. Sister Tharpe appeared at the stadium last year and drew a crowd of 18,000 enthusiastic gospel fans.

Many of the paying customers also brought gifts for the bride and groom, such as silverware, rugs and other furnishings, household appliances, televisions, and other typical wedding presents. Tickets were priced at 90 cents for tickets in the upper deck, $2.50 for premium seating on the infield, close to the stage. A wide selection of souvenirs was available for purchase, including programs, lucky key chains and miniature Bibles.

On the bill for the post-ceremony concert included Madam Marie Knight, the Rosettes, jubilee quartet the Harmonizing Four, Katie Bell Nubin (Sister Tharpe's mother and renowned evangelist) and other melodious and/or holy attractions. Marie Knight was the bride's maid of honor, the Rosettes served as bridesmaids and Tharpe's former bandleader in her New York City days, Lucky Millinder, stood up as best man.

The wedding party began their procession at the third base dugout and proceeded to the stage, set up at second base. The bride entered the stadium to the "Bridal Chorus," wearing a stunning bridal outfit rumored to cost $1,500. The sensational white scoop-neck gown with full-length lace sleeves was graced with a five-foot train, and was topped with a beautifully sequined veil held in place by a stunning rhinestone and pearl tiara. She carried a large bouquet of 28 white orchids and white ostrich feathers.

After the ceremony, presided upon by the Rev. Samuel Kelsey from the Washington, D.C. Temple Church of God In Christ — which will be included on the upcoming extended player by Decca Records — the bride performed in her wedding dress, singing and playing her trademark electric guitar on songs such as "So High," and "God Don't LIke It." The concert ended around midnight, after a dramatic fireworks display which included an image of Sister Tharpe playing guitar. Following the wedding, Sister Tharpe and her troupe will be heading south for a week-long "honeymoon tour." "I am happier than I've ever been in my life!" the bride told reporters.

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Another true confession: This article doesn't exist. It's an imagined account of the type of article that could very well have existed, in the same sort of gushing, affectionate tone directed towards Rosetta that you can find in the historical American Black newspapers of the day. The facts and information within the article above are, however, 100% true, pulled from the handful of articles that exist from sources such as the Baltimore Afro-American as well as Ebony Magazine, much of which is documented in Professor Gayle Wald's Shout, Sister, Shout, the only book dedicated to this rock and roll trailblazer. And this wasn't the first time Rosetta filled Griffith Stadium, or the first time she'd headlined a venue that could hold tens of thousands.

Now, compare that to the media saturation of the 1964 Beatles concert at the 8,000-capacity Washington Coliseum, which garnered coverage in all of the daily papers as well as the local news. While it's true that the accounts of shows like this one were also conveyed at the time with a mix of curiosity and disdain, the stateside arrival of the Fab Four is considered to be a critical event in rock and roll history, despite the fact that no one could actually hear any of the actual music over the rudimentary PA doing battle over thousands of screaming fans.

She was also as financially successful as the later stadium rockers: Even in her less productive years in the late '40s, Jerry Wexler (at that time, a writer for Billboard) estimated Rosetta's yearly gross at around $200,000, which would be equal to over $2,000,000 today. While artist managers like Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein would later be lauded for their merchandising ingenuity on behalf of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, the souvenirs available at the wedding at Griffith Stadium were viewed as a cheap ploy instead of the profit center artist merchandise would become. So why on earth isn't Rosetta Tharpe a well-known name?

It isn't as though we're asking history to elevate Rosetta's achievements by viewing them through a different angle; according to the standards set by the music business establishment, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a wildly successful and influential artist. Elvis Presley loved Rosetta, and particularly admired her guitar playing; given that she took the Jordanaires, a vocal quartet who provided Elvis with backing vocals for almost two decades, out on the road with her in their early days singing gospel, it's unlikely that her flamboyant showmanship and financial success were unknown to the King, who would later be lionized for his own grand gestures. Why is her influence minimized to the point that it's barely allowed to exist?

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Nashville, Tenn., September, 1962: Today, Gibson Guitars is proud to announce its latest guitar model, the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Signature SG electric guitar.

Sister Tharpe has favored Gibson guitars for much of her career, utilizing the Barney Kessel, the L5 acoustic, the classic Les Paul, and the ES-330. Recently, with the release of the SG (which stans for 'solid guitar') in 1961, she has enjoyed both the lighter weight of the guitar, which makes it more comfortable for performance and touring use, combined with its thinner and redesigned neck, which allowed Sister Tharpe greater ease to execute her use of chromaticism, the fast triplet licks she favored, as well as her love of double-stops.

Gibson was only too happy to work with this musical innovator to design a signature version that takes advantage of the SG's warmth and articulation, fast and comfortable neck, and deep-sounding pickups. Given that Sister Tharpe most often accompanies herself, without benefit of backing musicians, she relies on the richness of her guitar's tone as her sole accompaniment. Additionally, the reduced weight provides her with greater freedom in performance onstage, and better accommodates Sister Tharpe's trademark movement and physicality.

"She can make that guitar talk!" Sister Tharpe's fans are fond of saying. Now professional and amateur players alike can try their hand at Rosetta's unique style with the Rosetta Tharpe Signature SG, available in a range of finishes, including the artist's favorited white body.

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Rosetta began playing guitar at the age of six, accompanying her mother, a traveling evangelist for the Church of God In Christ. She was a child prodigy who would go on to develop her own technique, a unique style of fingerpicking that wasn't simple accompaniment, but rather a way to expand her sound by providing a contrasting melody line to her vocals. As Gayle Wald points out, "This ...was a strategy for being heard, for acoustic guitars, unlike pianos, possessed little if any resonance." So in the loud environments of the Sanctified Church, where the congregants were encouraged to vocalize and 'make a joyful noise unto the Lord,' and on the streets of Chicago, where Katie Bell Nubin held street meetings supported by her young daughter, Rosetta's playing style embodied both practicality and panache.

She made the switch from acoustic to electric guitar around 1947, by which point she had already been playing guitar for 25 years. Her mastery of the electric instrument was equal to her command of the acoustic; Chicago-based gospel singer Geraldine Gay Hambric told Gayle Wald, "When Chuck Berry came out, I had seen all that." (Berry himself has been quoted as saying that his entire career was "just one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.") Others lucky enough to see Rosetta perform remember her physicality with the instrument, that they all said was "playing the guitar like a man." A music director of a Brooklyn-based Pentecostal church asserted that Rosetta could play the guitar behind her head or lying down on the floor. A 1951 ad for an appearance in Detroit is billed as, "Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Great Decca Recording Star! - In Person - Her Guitar and Co." So it definitely would have made sense if Gibson Guitars had taken one look at this artist's innovation and long association with its brand, and created a custom model for her, right?

No, of course they didn't. (I'm sure you're all sensing a theme here.) Rosetta was a spokesperson for Royal Crown Cola ("Sister Tharpe's clues for chasing the blues...") and did a radio PSA on the dangers of syphilis, but Gibson Guitars never paid any type of tribute to a successful working musician who visibly favored their instruments for decades. Rosetta was highly skilled at promotion; she kept the Black press fed with press releases and colorful stories, usually accompanied by a photograph of Rosetta smiling and playing guitar, which you can find in historical archives in papers from Cleveland to Los Angeles, Kansas City to Arkansas, Chicago to Philadelphia.

In 1957, at the height of the rock and roll explosion in the U.S., Rosetta was largely forgotten. That's when Chris Barber, a British musician who led a popular "trad jazz" band, invited her on a three week tour of the U.K. that would take her to 20 cities. She was an instant sensation, received enthusiastically in England as well as on the continent. Rosetta would return several times, garnering headlines on her third U.K. visit reading, "Beatle Boosters Defect: Bristolites Dig Blues Singer Sister Tharpe" and noting that fans stood outside the historic Corn Exchange to see her. As Bob Dylan astutely stated, "I'm sure there are a lot of young English guys who picked up an electric guitar after getting a look at her."

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There's a music store in Nashville called Fanny's House of Music. On the side of their building, there's a giant mural featuring guitar players, not much different than what you'd see in any music store anywhere in the world, really. But instead of a pantheon of the obligatory male guitar heroes set up in some kind of pyramid arrangement leading up to Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, things look very different. At the forefront, you have Suzi Quatro, Maybelle Carter, Barbara Lynn — and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In the background, everyone from Joni Mitchell to Joan Jett. It's less some kind of radical rethinking than a quiet assertion of truth.

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