What do Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis all have in common? Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black musician from Arkansas who played the electric guitar and sang the blues and gospel. She toured with Muddy Waters in 1964 in England and is said to have influenced Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards with her distortion-style guitar technique. And I’d never heard of her.
Her mother, a musical evangelist, took Tharpe on tour throughout the South where she was called a “singing and guitar-playing miracle.” As a musical prodigy, she used the tour as a way of practicing and experimenting, honing her style and receiving immediate feedback on her passionate voice as she smashed together gospel lyrics with rich guitar riffs. The church apparently didn’t appreciate her genius and criticized her style as scandalous.
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction speech, Johnny Cash said Tharpe was his favorite singer when he was a child. Elvis Presley credits her as one of five musicians who influenced his style. He supposedly said his entire career was “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” She recorded twelve albums – mostly gospel and R&B.
Tharpe has been commemorated in documentaries by BBC and NPR and PBS. She was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 as an early influencer and even had a US commemorative stamp released with her likeness in 1998.
Why had I only learned of her influence recently? She pushed gender boundaries. To those who would say she played okay for a woman, she responded “Can’t no man play like me.” Many female, musical artists were influenced by her panache and style including Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She pushed racial boundaries by inviting the Jordanaires (an all-White male band popular in Nashville at the time and a frequent backup to Presley) to back her up at a concert—an audacious act at the time.
There was a time when I spent much of my free time at concerts. I have enjoyed many starry nights at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, being soothed by the sounds of B.B. King or energized by Buddy Guy’s energy or cheering on the bold voices of singers like Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett. And yet, I never knew of Tharpe’s influence.
Music is a backdrop to our history, a kind of ever-evolving legacy. I love how artists are influenced by each other, inspired and pushed and cajoled out of their own boundaries and boxes by other artists. In my novel, one of the characters is a jazz lover and he describes his perspective on the history of jazz: “Jazz has a history, it builds on music of the past, wraps it around itself, bends it, swirls it until it’s something new, different but similar. Jazz tells a story.” I believe that is true of all music and its inventors. It’s true of all writers.
I’m often haunted by what I don’t know. “Black history is American history.” And I still have a lot to learn.
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