Rock 'n' roll was bred between the church and the nightclubs in the soul of an African American woman in the 1940s named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was there before Little Richard, Elvis Presley, James Brown and Johnny Cash swiveled their hips, danced or strummed a guitar. It was Tharpe, the godmother of rock 'n' roll, who turned this burgeoning musical style into an international sensation.
She picked up the guitar at four years old, and at the age of six she accompanied her mother to perform with a travelling evangelist troupe in churches around the South. By the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, where they continued performing spiritual music. As Tharpe grew up, she began fusing Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel music into what would become her signature style.
Her persistence and grit paid off and by 1938, she had joined the Cotton Club Revue, a New York City club that became especially notable during the Prohibition era. She was only 23 at the time, a feat that was only amplified when she scored her first single, "Rock Me," a gospel and rock 'n' roll fusion, along with three other gospel songs: "My Man and I," "That's All" and "Lonesome Road."
As a young African American woman working within a heavily male-dominated industry in the 1940s, Tharpe wasn't shy about rattling conventions. She collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, like Duke Ellington and the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1941, she began travelling widely with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, a notable swing band, and recorded the likes of "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa" with them. She even teamed up with the Jordanaires, an all-white male group, and began performing for mixed audiences. Despite her fame, institutional racism in the mid-1940s was still rampant. On tour, all restaurants and hotels were still segregated, so Tharpe slept on buses. She went around the back end of restaurants to pick up food because they wouldn't let her in.
Tharpe then took her talents to Europe and began touring again in 1957. While building a new generation of fans, Tharpe delivered what would become one of her most iconic performances, in 1964: Singing to a crowd across a train station platform in south Manchester. As she stepped down a horse-drawn carriage, with a gospel and blues rhythm playing in the background, she bobbed to the platform with a young gentleman on her arm.
She kicked off the performance with a gospel tune, "Didn't It Rain." As Tharpe played on that showery day, she held her guitar close and squinted her eyes; it was obvious that the tale of love and heartache in her song was an experience she had survived herself. She continued touring in Europe practically until the end of her life (her last known recording is from 1970 in Copenhagen). She died three years later, in Philadelphia, from a stroke.
Through her unforgettable voice and gospel swing crossover style, Tharpe influenced a generation of musicians including Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and countless others.