The Godmother of Rock N’ Roll

Within in each devoted Rock N’ Roll fan’s mind is undoubtedly a list of blues artists credited with paving the way for the outstanding and monumental Rock N’ Rollers of the 1950’s. B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters… whomever they may be, had their own unique noteworthy significance, marking them as some of the most influential and groundbreaking musicians of their time. Inevitably as the years tick by, several of these impactful musicians appear to fall through the gaping history cracks, being stripped of their historical significance, and slowly, sadly, becoming forgotten. Though threatened with this same fate, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has cast a vivid and renewed light onto her striking sound and unmatched talent.

Born in the year 1915 to a family of Arkansas religious singers, cotton pickers, and traditional evangelists, Tharpe was introduced to music at a young age. She began playing the guitar at only four years old and touring the southern United States at age six with her mother and their gospel playing traveling evangelist troupe. By the mid 1920’s a young Tharpe and her mother relocated to Chicago where she developed as a musician and began fusing the music she grew up on; Delta Blues, New Orleans Jazz, and Gospel, crafting an individual style all her own.

Despite Tharpe gaining a solid fandom throughout this period of her career, it remained taboo for a woman to play the guitar and for a musician to perform for both religious and secular audiences. Often remembered for her fortitude, Tharpe never allowed these prejudices to alter her musical destination, instead she inevitably capitalized on her uniqueness. In 1938, at the age of 23, Tharpe began playing the famous Cotton Club Revue, a New York City hot spot during the time of the prohibition, and scored her first record deal with Decca Records. She went onto record four songs with them, the first gospel music ever released by Decca, and all four becoming instant hits with, “Rock Me” becoming one of her most popular of all time.

Tharpe continued to rattle conventions with her use of sexualized lyrics alongside her solid gospel standing. In 1940, she recorded secular hits such as, “That’s All” and “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” with, “That’s All” being her first recording using her now signature, electric guitar. This tune, with its distinct guitar style, would go on to inspire rock legend Elvis Presley and guitar hero, Chuck Berry. Tharpe collaborated with several of the most popular artists of this generation such as Duke Ellington, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the all-white male group the Jordanaires. This marked the beginning of her performing for mixed audiences and alongside white musicians. Tharpe’s crossover appeal is largely illuminated when she became one of only two African American gospel artists to record “V Discs” for American troops overseas.

Despite her fame and seemingly musical acceptance, Tharpe endured heavy racism and prejudice throughout these touring years. Often times forced to sleep on the bus when refused at a hotel or having to pick-up food from the backdoor at a restaurant, Tharpe continued to persevere and never allow her experiences to hinder her musical spirit. Following World War II, Tharpe wrote “Strange Things Happening Everyday” with blues pianist, Sammy Price. This tune would become the first gospel song to break the Rhythm and Blues top 10 and to be consider by some to be one of the first Rock N’ Roll songs ever recorded.

By the age of 30, Tharpe had been married and divorced twice when she met gospel singer Marie Knight. The two teamed up on several recordings, toured together, and were an openly queer female couple throughout the 1940’s. As if Tharpe had not already established herself as a daring and brave individual, she stood her ground once more and unabashedly displayed her love for another all while maintaining the already criticized image of an electric guitar playing, gospel singing, African American woman.

By 1950 the pair had split and Tharpe’s career began dwindling within the US. She next took her talents to Europe and was celebrated amongst a new, fresh generation of fans. One of her most iconic performances happened in 1967 when she sang to a crowd across the tracks at a train station on a rainy South Manchester day. Unafraid of the potential electric shock conducted between the moisture in the air and her electric guitar, Tharpe squinted her eyes and belted a memorable performance of her gospel tune, “Didn’t it Rain.” Tharpe continued touring throughout Europe until her premature day of death in 1970. She was only 55 years old.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s impact on Rock N’ Roll can be heard in the gritty, gospel singing Elvis Presley, the quick, fiery playing Chuck Berry, and the soulful, blues notes of Eric Clapton. Her unafraid nature and apparent determination marks her as not only a massive contributor of Rock N’ Roll music, but as an inspiring, unapologetic woman who remained true to herself despite outside opinions. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the Godmother of Rock N’ Roll music, let’s never forget it.

–Victoria Shaffer




Diaz-Hurtado, Jessica. “Forebears: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Godmother Of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” NPR, NPR, 24 Aug. 2017,
Hermes, Will. “Why Sister Rosetta Tharpe Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 13 Dec. 2017,
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”, A&E Networks Television, 2 Apr. 2014,

17 thoughts on “The Godmother of Rock N’ Roll

  1. You’re so right! No blues, no rock n’ roll. I’ve always considered Robert Johnson and or Willie Leadbetter to be the male forefathers, and Ma Rainey to be the foremother, of the blues. But Sister Tharpe is definitely on the blues Mt Rushmore. 😃

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice post. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a truly amazing lady and such a trailblazer!

    I was very happy to see she is being recognized by The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which called her “the first guitar heroine of rock & roll.” If you listen at some of her songs when started crossing over from gospel, the guitar playing is astonishing. It really sounds like an early version of Chuck Berry.

    Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

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