Led by a generation of young dudes from England, rock and roll was enjoying its hair-flying heyday in 1973, the year Sister Rosetta Tharpe was laid to rest, without a tombstone. While British guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards achieved enduring celebrity and wealth, the American blues musicians they emulated largely faded into obscurity. But none fell further than Sister Rosetta, the 1940s Gospel singer who happens to be one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived.
The nation’s first bona fide Gospel music star, Tharpe rose to fame in the 1930s, transforming herself from a child prodigy who performed in churches on Sunday morning to a New York nightclub sensation.
She recorded hit records solely on the strength of her throaty, soulful voice, and wowed mainstream audiences with a larger-than-life stage presence. Despite growing up in an America in which a black woman faced serious difficulties, she exuded confidence and strength, taking the stage with fur-coated bravado, a living prototype of the modern-day diva, despite having to sleep on a tour bus because whites-only hotels wouldn’t have her. For her third marriage, she staged a wedding and concert in a Washington D.C. baseball stadium before 20,000 fans.
But Sister Rosetta’s enduring legacy belongs to the electric guitar. She grew up with a guitar in her hand and was widely recognized as a virtuoso. When the electric guitar was invented in 1931, it proved to be an altogether different instrument than its acoustic cousin. Able to play at louder volume, with sustained notes, electric guitar could feature as a solo instrument alongside trumpets and clarinets.
By the 1950s, electric guitar would become the dominant instrument in popular music. But first, that sound needed to be culturally defined, and Sister Rosetta is counted among the first musicians to give a voice to the electric guitar. She tood advantage of the longer sustain and learned to make amplified distortion a feature, not a bug.
Her distinctive picking technique would influence those credited with inventing rock and roll, men including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. As much as her sound came to be woven into rock history, so did the theatricality of her performances. A million guitarists that followed have adopted her swagger. She played with swinging hips, fingers dancing up and down the fretboard as she copped the stance that would become a guitar solo cliché. While The Who’s Pete Townsend is most famous for dramatic windmill strums; Sister Rosetta beat him to that move by a couple decades.
Most of those future guitar gods were present when Sister Rosetta played at an abandoned train station in Manchester in 1964, one of the first American gospel and blues artists to perform in the U.K. Muddy Waters played that show too, and while he’s long been credited as an influence ahead of the British Invasion that came to dominate rock and roll in the 1960s and '70s, sister Rosetta was forgotten by all but the musicians who adored her. Only in the 21st century have music historians worked to give her credit due.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last April, and now a play has been written, exploring her career and rumored bisexuality. Marie and Rosetta plays at the Cygnet Theater until February 16.