The Erasure of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

 

This is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was gospel singer and guitarist, born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Over her 35-year professional career as a musician she acquired much fame and fortune, toured the world, inspired many artists and was credited with bringing gospel to the mainstream – but when she died in 1973, aged 58, her funeral was sparsely attended and she was buried in an unmarked grave.

 

Tharpe was raised in the Pentecostal Church, travelling and preaching with her mother.  She was noticed for her musical talent young and gained significant popularity as a ‘swinger of spirituals’ in her mid-20s.  By 1940, she had a record deal with Decca and in February 1941, Tharpe signed a deal with Lucius ‘Lucky’ Millinder, agreeing to play spiritual songs with the Lucky Millinder Band. Over the course of the next year this collaboration began to bring her more popularity, with the new arrangements of her old songs being particular favourites. However, the partnership was not wholly positive. Within a year Tharpe was singing songs such as ‘Tall Skinny Papa’ – the opposite of spiritual in message. The church took a dim view of such lyrics as they displayed not only sexual desire but female sexual desire; a more-than- slightly taboo subject (especially amongst those of Christian faith).

Tharpe disliked these euphemistic songs. Her friend Roxie Moore claimed that Tharpe was bound by a clause in her contract to sing whatever material she was given. Irrespective of the morality of the song, ‘Tall Skinny Papa’ became a hit. Marie Knight, a singer and musician who would work with Tharpe during the 1940s and 1950s, described the Lucky Millinder deal as one in a series in which Tharpe allowed herself to be used to profit men. Whether this pattern was a product of socialisation – Tharpe, being a black woman in a white man’s world, may have felt it was not her place to question the terms of such contracts – or a consequence of inexperience or poor representation is unknown. Tharpe had a streak of rebelliousness in her and a love for the limelight, thus she may have signed these deals in full knowledge of the potential consequences.

By the end of 1943, Rosetta had left the Lucky Millinder Band, finalised her divorce from Tommy Tharpe, remarried and had been commissioned to record ‘V-disks’ for American troops fighting in the Second World War. In 1944, she released one of the most successful tracks of her career – ‘Strange Things Happenin’ Every Day’, which made history by crossing over from gospel” to reach number two in the ‘race records’ chart. It was the first gospel record ever to do so.

The song featured a ‘boogie-woogie’ piano line, courtesy of pianist Samuel ‘Sammy’ Price, and Tharpe on electric guitar, plus bass and drums. This pared-down instrumentation was an important precursor to that of rock and roll – the combination of electric guitar and boogie-woogie piano is thought not to have been recorded before ‘Strange Things’. It is also important to note that an electric guitar was a rare thing in 1944 and Sister Rosetta Tharpe liked to play loudly, letting the sound distort; something that would become a hallmark of the rock and roll guitar sound.  Seeing Tharpe play at the time would have been a shock even to secular audiences. Despite ‘Strange Things’ being African American and spiritual in origin, the openness of the title phrase allowed listeners to interpret the song as it applied to their own lives – undoubtedly this was a factor in its popularity.

 

In 1949, one Billboard writer estimated that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was grossing $200,000 per year; keeping at least $120,000 of that as her own earnings. For context, according to the 1949 US census, (published by the Bureau of Census in 1951) “the income of the average family was $3,100 in 1949” – Tharpe was earning almost forty times that. To get there, she overcame both the institutionalised and explicit racism and sexism that pervaded society and the music industry – she had to not only be phenomenally musically talented but clever and incredibly ambitious. Indeed, during the 1940s Tharpe was one of the USA’s hardest touring artists.

Today someone who showed such prowess on the electric guitar, such mastery of complex singing techniques, and such resulting fame and fortune would be labelled a rock star. Although Tharpe has been held up in recent years as the Godmother of rock and roll and in practice may well be considered the first rock and roll star, she certainly would not have been called it. The rock and roll genre did not come into its own until the mid-1950s, when Tharpe was already beginning to fade into obscurity, and the term ‘rock star’ has since become associated almost exclusively with white young men.

In 1950, Tharpe’s good fortune began to run out.  The singer Marie Knight, with whom she had been partnered very successfully for a number of years, stopped working with Tharpe after losing her mother and her two children in a house fire.  Additionally, rumour had it that Tharpe and Knight had been romantic as well as professional partners – the resulting scandal was taking chunks out of  Tharpe’s popularity.

To top it all off, the music media had begun to pit Tharpe against fellow gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Matters were only made worse when Decca had Tharpe record a version of ‘Move On Up a Little Higher’ in January 1949, a song with which Jackson had recently had a monumental hit. There was little difference between the two singers’ versions but Tharpe’s was seen as an attempt by fading star to piggyback on the fame of a rising one.

Jackson’s career was very much the antithesis of Tharpe’s – she had spurned the call of Broadway while Tharpe had accepted it; she sang to traditional piano or organ accompaniment whereas Tharpe accompanied herself on the electric guitar; she stuck to gospel while Tharpe ventured into blues; she was dubbed ‘Mother’ Mahalia while Tharpe remained ‘Sister’. While the music that Tharpe played in the late 1940s and early 1950s was no different – she continued to mostly play gospel songs – she was painted in the press as the more deviant of the two performers. Words like ‘flamboyant’ hinted at the rumours surrounding Tharpe’s sexuality as journalists compared her theatrical exuberance to Jackson’s modesty and propriety. It did not take long for Jackson to eclipse her and for an erasure of Tharpe and her music from popular history to begin to take place.

This media narrative is a well-known one and it has been repeated many times since in the entertainment world (in each case there are two women; a good and a bad). They were pitted against one another whether they liked it or not. This is an example of the media’s complicity in misogyny as it forces the question of what makes a good woman; in doing so it divides women by implying that some are more worthy than others – and in dividing women, it limits the momentum of women’s movements. In actual fact Tharpe and Jackson are thought to have been good friends, but their press-fabricated rivalry is the story that endures.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a great inspiration to the generation of performers that rose to fame in the mid-1950s. She was more than an inspiration to Little Richard, who, being a fan of hers, was given his first opportunity to perform before an audience by Tharpe at one of her concerts. The physicality of her performances was informed by the so-called ‘Holy Rollers’ of the Church of God in Christ – it was this that laid the foundations for the outrageous performances of rock and roll artists like Elvis Presley. Presley was a big fan of Tharpe’s, in part because they shared a religious and musical tradition in Pentecostalism. Little Richard also had a Pentecostal background and his singing-cum-shouting vocal style would closely mirror Tharpe’s in later years. Tharpe’s vocal phrasing was heavily influenced by that of Pentecostal preachers; she would string out the words she wanted her audience to pay attention to and speak certain sections of her lyrics, all the while with a bright smile in her voice. Other musicians she inspired include Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, to name but a few.

It was as these musicians began to gain popularity in the US that Sister Rosetta Tharpe really began to lose hers.  “[W]hen the rock revolution came it was divided on generational grounds. Rock’s troops were teenagers and the troops were looking for one of their own to lead the way—not a 47-year-old with strong ties to the church.”  Suddenly Tharpe found herself labelled too racy for the church and too old and prudish for a secular audience, as Mahalia Jackson redefined gospel and Elvis redefined guitar music.  Gayle Wald, Tharpe’s biographer, suggests that part of the reason for Tharpe’s relative obscurity is that she was too hard to categorise. In Tharpe’s defence, the rules of the game changed while she was still playing. She began in an America of big brass bands, where she could exhibit her unabashed love for performing and for her God, and ended up in one where gospel was humble and loud guitars were for young, white men. Particularly in an era filled with anxiety around the rightful place a woman and anger around the subjugation of black people, Sister Rosetta Tharpe did not fit the narrative. Wald argues that Tharpe’s very existence stood as a threat to the norms of society at the time and that this is the reason that she has been written out of the history of popular music.

During the 1950s, Tharpe entered into her third unhappy marriage – and did so as part of a musical event of unprecedented scale at Griffith Stadium in 1951 – and in the 1960s she began touring the UK and Europe where she could still sell out shows. She died in 1973 in Philadelphia, following a stroke.

 

Musically, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was phenomenally gifted and the direct influence she had on musicians of many genres – predominantly rock and roll but also soul, gospel and blues – is undeniable.

There is truth in the assertion that Tharpe was hard to categorise, but the fact that the grave of this veritable star had no headstone until 2008 remains barely fathomable. Tharpe’s story is an important one to tell because the concept of a black female guitar hero is one that Western society still struggles to understand. At the peak of her career there were a great number of barriers to any young black woman wishing to follow in Tharpe’s footsteps, whereas now, if she were remembered as Elvis Presley is remembered, young people of all genders and ethnicities might be galvanised to pick up a guitar and step into the breach, in spite of the prejudices that remain.

Unfortunately evidence of the direct cultural impact that Tharpe had is scarce due to the paucity of analytical writing around her life and music. The most tangible socio-political repercussions of her career are to be found in the impact of the musicians she inspired. Her enigmatic and exuberant performances paved the way for the culture shock that was Elvis Presley and rock’n’roll – and all the cultural change that came with them – but it is both telling and regrettable that Sister Rosetta Tharpe must be contextualised by the young white men that she inspired rather than being remembered for the black, female artist that she was.