Written by: Mark Glotzbach, Follow him on Instagram and WordPress @markglotzbachblog
When you think of rock and roll you probably think of names like Chuck Berry, Little Richard or Elvis Presley. However, none of them deserves the credit for creating the genre as much as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black Christian bi-sexual woman and the true Godmother of Rock and Roll.
Born in Cottonplant, Arkansas in 1915 to an Evangelical Christian mother, Tharpe spent much of her time as a child performing music at the church playing Guitar and Piano. In her teens she traveled around the country with her mother performing in churches and gaining much fame as a musician in the church community.
Tharpe’s soulful and upbeat music would get the congregation on their feet and dancing. Her mother convinced to marry a preacher, but after being used for her talents to make money, Tharpe moved to New York. Tharpe also moved from performing at churches, to rocking out at nightclubs.
Tharpe brought her soulful gospel sound to the secular music industry, gaining in popularity in the late 30’s. By the age of 25 she was considered one of the most popular musicians of the time, performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. She was rich, famous and completely in control of what music she played, quite a feat for a Black Female during the time of segregation.
Tharpe performed and traveled with four white men who would have to bring her food back to the bus for her, even though she was a star. Tharpe wouldn’t let this stop her, and used such troubles to fuel her music.
After two brief and failed marriages, Tharpe met a singer named Marie Knight, whom she began a romantic relationship with. The two traveled the country together, alone, to share their amazing sound until 1950 when the two drifted apart.
Tharpe then had her 3rd marriage with Roger Morrison, at Griffith Stadium in Washington. The idea came from two promoters: Rosetta recorded her ceremony concert and even charged admission to attend the wedding. The stadium was packed. Morrison became Tharpe’s manager and the two remained married for 22 years.
The intense emotions that Tharpe brought to the music world was the soul of rock and roll. In the 50’s white artists like Elvis Presley were heavily influenced by black musicians, but their skin color allowed their music and their names to become what many associated with the genre.
Tharpe spent the early 60’s travelling with big name blues acts like Muddy Waters in England, and was a crowd favorite on the tour. Tharpe lost her mother a few years later, became severely depressed and was also diagnosed with diabetes, leading to a foot amputation.
Tharpe died in 1973, but she lives on through her music and the impact she had on the generations of musicians to follow.