GW Today presents a musical guide to the rock-and-roll trailblazer from English and American Studies professor and Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald.
By Ruth Steinhardt
On Saturday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—lbut the game-changing guitarist and singer was pioneering the genre decades before Elvis Presley picked up his first guitar. She was even dubbed “the godmother of rock and roll” in a documentary based on George Washington University professor Gayle Wald's “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” So there’s a case to be made that the induction is overdue.
Born in Arkansas in 1915, Ms. Tharpe developed her signature style as a child performer at Pentecostal churches and tent revivals across the south. When she later embarked on a secular career, the bluesy gospel of her youth still influenced her performances. Fans and critics often said of her that she played guitar “like a man”—and certainly many of her biggest fans were the men now credited with the genre she helped create.
“Rosetta Tharpe was an influence on Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash (she was his favorite singer), Jerry Lee Lewis and others, as well as an inspiration for female musicians like Ruth Brown and Bonnie Raitt,” said Dr. Wald, an English and American Studies professor.
Ms. Tharpe is said to have shut down the backhanded compliment about the manliness of her playing: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.” To commemorate her Hall of Fame induction—and support her point—Dr. Wald put together a playlist of a few of Ms. Tharpe’s signature tracks for GW Today.
1. Rock Me
“Before she recorded this track for Decca Records in 1938, Rosetta Tharpe had only ever performed in religious contexts—at revivals, in churches, at tent meetings. Here she is playing her acoustic guitar—listen for the way she embellishes phrases with expert fingerpicking—and singing one of her gospel standards, also known as ‘Hold Me in Thy Bosom.’ The song is addressed to a loving and nurturing God. But the way Rosetta sings ‘rock me’ here—with a growl in the ‘r’—suggests secular meanings as well.”
2. I Want a Tall Skinny Papa
“In the early 1940s, Rosetta joined Lucky Millinder’s popular swing band. With Millinder she played the more conventional role of ‘girl singer’ fronting a male swing band, though Millinder did feature her guitar playing. This song is fun and not a little naughty, with call-and-response vocals between the singer and the band. It’s a far cry from her gospel material.”
3. Strange Things Happening Everyday
“‘Strange things’ were indeed happening in the immediate post-war era, so the title of this song resonated when Rosetta recorded it in 1946. This song had a second life when influential Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips played it on his radio show—which is where a young Elvis Presley, who loved Rosetta Tharpe, might have heard the song.”
4. Didn’t It Rain
“Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight are backed by the Sammy Price Trio in this glorious duet from the late 1940s. ‘Didn't It Rain’ is a gospel standard, and Rosetta and Marie infuse their version with a heady swing and swagger. The two toured widely in the late 1940s and were said by many to be lovers, even as Tharpe married three husbands. There’s a great video of Rosetta performing this solo, with a white Mary Ford SG electric guitar, in England in 1964. It was through her European performances in the 1960s that Rosetta influenced the musicians of the British Invasion.”
5. Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air
“Another duet with Marie Knight, backed by the Sammy Price Trio. The amazing Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performed at Rosetta’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 14.”