Sister Rosetta Tharpe: a Rock and Roll Pioneer

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When you think of rock and roll, the artists that come to mind first may be the likes of the legendary Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or The Beatles. But perhaps instead of the various men who grace the annals of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you should consider some of the great female contributions to the genre — and one in particular: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Don’t let the title fool you. The only sacred vows Tharpe promised was to her guitar, an instrument she played with almost spiritual devotion. As one of the most innovative voices of the 20th century, Tharpe deserves to be remembered.

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Born in 1919, Tharpe started singing when she was four. By 1938, she became the first gospel singer to be signed by the major record label, Decca. Mixing gospel with blues, jazz, and what would be the precursor to rock and roll, she was quickly dropped by Decca for her secular ways; but by the 1950s, she was picked up by Mercury Records. By then she had made major waves within the industry with such hits as Up Above My Head and Strange Things Happening Every Day.

Known for her deep, rich voice and a playing style that mixed the melodies of urban blues with traditional folk arrangements, Tharpe had a unique approach to music that drew a lot of praise from critics and artists alike. She’s been quoted at major influences for Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The effects of her influence can still be felt today, and many contemporary artists have recorded songs in her honour. You can find the song, Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, on the 2007 release of Robert Plant and Alison Kraus’ album, Raising Sand. Meanwhile Michelle Shocked, the alternative folk artist, included a tribute to Tharpe’sStrange Things Happening Every Day on her album of live covers.

But perhaps what was most singular about Tharpe was not her amazing skill behind the fret (which was still nothing to laugh at) but her trail blazing use of her Gibson guitar. She was all about showmanship, and she used her instrument – an SG Custom – to its full effects. Indeed, forget what you know about the windmill. While some people may try to tell you Pete Townshend invented the showy strum in the 70s, there’s video proof of Tharpe strumming windmills in a video of her performance of Down by the Riverside.

The SG, which debuted in 1961, remains a favourite amongst rock, blues, and jazz guitarists. It’s still an easy model to find. No self-respecting music store would deny their customers of this Gibson guitar. The same goes for the best Canadian music stores, such as Long & McQuade. Long & McQuade has tons of Gibson guitars including Tharpe’s preferred SG as well as a variety of electric and acoustic guitar models.

With one in your hands, you can attempt the windmill Tharpe originated so many decades ago. The top music stores Canada has to offer will set you up with all of the accessories you need in order to get your tribute to the sister started off right. You can also find tabs online, as well as YouTube videos of her original performances to get her style down right.

Considering her influential voice and trailblazing stage presence, Sister Rosetta Tharpe deserves more recognition than she gets. If you agree, join in the thousands of others who have signed the petition to have her inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering so many current inductees owe their style to Tharpe, it only makes sense to have her added to the list.

Michael Sanduso lives in Toronto, Canada. He is a freelance writer and editor, tech geek, and stay at home father.

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