Sister Rosetta Tharpe got rock rolling long before Elvis

I said, “Say man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll.” I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s … shakin’ man … She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, “Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

— Jerry Lee Lewis

The late, great Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a one-of-a-kind pioneer of 20th-century American music.

The sanctified singer was a gospel superstar in the 1930s and 1940s and a treasured influence on iconic figures such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard. A church lady who played a wicked electric guitar, she wielded her instrument with a Pentecostal passion and prowess that left jaws dropping from the gospel highway to Carnegie Hall.

So why does the pride of Cotton Plant, Ark., and subject of Gayle F. Wald’s new biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, lie in an unmarked grave in the cold ground of Northwood Cemetery in North Philadelphia?

That’s one of the key questions that Wald — a self-described “Jewish girl from the Philadelphia suburbs” who teaches African-American literature at the George Washington University — set out to answer after seeing a clip of Tharpe singing “Up Above My Head,” while at an academic conference a decade ago.

That video, which also appeared in a 30-second snippet in the 2001 French movie Amelie, is taken from an episode of the 1962 show TV Gospel Time, which Tharpe hosted and performed on between testimonials for a laxative called Feenamint.

Wald was mesmerized by the clip — praise the Lord, it’s viewable on YouTube — which shows the then 47-year-old musician, in musical ecstasy, leading a gospel choir in celebration and raising her right hand above the frets in a way that presages Pete Townshend’s windmill move.

“I never imagined that a woman from the church could be ripping it up on a Gibson like that,” says Wald, 41, speaking on the phone from Oxford, Miss., where she was attending a blues symposium at the University of Mississippi. “I wondered why I hadn’t heard of her.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

In the five years she spent working on Shout, Sister, Shout! — she also wrote the liner notes to a 2003 Tharpe tribute CD featuring Joan Osborne and Sweet Honey in the Rock — Wald found that Tharpe, who lived in Philadelphia from 1958 until her death in 1973, “had an extraordinarily wide fan base.”

She was beloved by Southern gospel fans, though they sometimes looked askance at her scandalous ways, such as getting married, for the third time, before a baseball stadium full of people in Washington, D.C., in 1952, and then playing a concert in her wedding dress.

One of her reasons for settling on Philadelphia as a base for her frequent European tours was her friendship with Ira Tucker, singer of the Dixie Hummingbirds, the local gospel institution, with whom she toured frequently.

“Rosetta had a lot of personality,” remembered Tucker, 81, a South Carolina native who often fished off the Jersey Shore with Tharpe. “She was one of the finest people you could meet. She looked over nobody. And there weren’t too many women doing what she was doing. She was packing houses everywhere. When we got together, we were working good.”

Tharpe’s audience included jazz aficionados and discerning Southerners such as Johnny Cash, who called the gospel singer his favorite artist. And she won over European fans, including drummer Ginger Baker, who would go on to fame with Cream. He backed her on a tour of Scandinavia in 1958. When Baker told Tharpe his hair was a natural bright red, Wald recounts, the religious singer replied: “You’ll have to drop your pants to prove it!”

“All these different audiences found a way to appreciate her,” says Wald, whose previous book is Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in 20th Century American Literature and Culture. “So why is she forgotten and why is she in an unmarked grave and why hasn’t this book already been written?”

Tharpe died at 58 at Temple University hospital, from a blood clot in the brain, resulting from complications due to diabetes, which had already led to one of her legs being amputated. Her grave is unmarked, Wald writes, simply because Russell Morrison, the singer’s third husband, never paid for a gravestone. The author hopes to buy one for Tharpe later this year.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Count Basie

Explaining her relative obscurity is more complicated, Wald says. It’s partly because Tharpe “defied categories. She was a gospel artist who always had one foot in the secular world, a flamboyant entertainer with roots in the gospel church.”

Born in 1915, and raised in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, Sister Rosetta moved to Chicago when she was 6 with her mother, singer and mandolin player Katie Bell Nubin. She worked the gospel circuit as a teenager and, in 1938, took New York by storm.

She played John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concert that year, shared the Cotton Club stage with Cab Calloway, and raised eyebrows by performing alongside scantily clad female dancers with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra.

In 1944, her thrilling boogie-woogie flavored “Strange Things Happening Every Day” made history by crossing over from gospel to become a “race records” hit, as the R&B charts were then known. She also scored a hit with “This Train,” reworked most recently by Bruce Springsteen as “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

Rock and roll innovators such as Little Richard, Lewis and Presley bowed down to Tharpe — “Elvis loved Sister Rosetta,” Jordanaires singer Gordon Stoker told Wald.

But in the 1950s, “the new audience in R&B and rock `n’ roll was a youth audience, and she was in her mid-40s,” Wald says. “She was old-fashioned, and people wanted to hear people their own age making music. And it’s also people who don’t fall into an archetype that wind up being forgotten.”

With Shout!, Wald aimed to restore Sister Rosetta to her rightful place in music history.

“What does rock ‘n’ roll look like if we tell the story from the point of view of this black gospel singer who rocked the church?” she asks. “How do we understand and imagine who rocks out on electric guitar?”

“Because that’s the thing that struck me most: I associated that kind of prowess and confidence with a male player, and these days, despite people like Prince, a white male player. So it was about busting that myth. But also saying: Wow, if you include her in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, it looks a little bit different.”